The African Burial Ground

Cemeteries are, at the very least, as much for the living as they are for the dead. They are the locus of tribute and memory; affirming connections to a place and its yore.

And so during the construction of a General Services Administration office building in Lower Manhattan in 1991, a little more than 20 feet below the ground, graves were discovered. And those remains led to the discovery of hundreds of other bodies in the same area. Excavations at the site revealed the remains of approximately 419 Africans and well over 500 individual artifacts.

The affirmation that these were black New Yorkers interred in what a 1755 map calls the Negroes Burial Ground, the earth seemed to shake from more than just the machinery. The evidence led to a conceptual quake, consequently transforming how New York City’s history was previously understood and how black New Yorkers connected to and embraced their history.

During the 1640s, the Dutch granted conditional freedom to certain groups of African folks, letting them settle outside of town, about a mile from the tip of Manhattan. The African community thus developed a distinct culture in the region. But even till the end of 17th century, the Africans were not allowed to bury their dead in New York’s primary burial ground. This ban is believed to be the reason Africans used the burial ground, which is today recognized as the African Burial Ground National Monument. Forced to establish their own burial ground, Africans created their sacred space in what was at the time the “Commons” area away from the bustle of the city. Today the burial ground is in downtown Manhattan.

 

For a hundred years (from the 1690s to 1790s), the aforementioned plot of land became the final resting place for more than 15,000 Africans, only to be later lost under infinite years of urban development and landfill, until workers rediscovered the burial ground in 1991 during an excavation.

 

The discovery of this cemetery provided the first large-scale traces of black American experience in the region. Hidden beneath the commercial bustle are sections of land that for more than a century were consigned to the burial of the city’s slaves and free blacks.

Both the earliest and the biggest excavated burial ground in North America, the burial ground safeguards the historic role slavery played in building the city of New York.

Honoring both the spirit of those buried here and those who fought for its protection, the story of the monument is both old and new. It’s both the story of the Africans whose revered point this site was and also the story of the modern-day New Yorkers who fought to honor these ancestors.

If you find yourself in Jersey, just pick one from the numerous bus and private carriers in NJ and visit the African Burial Ground.

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