The Controversy and Archaeology of New York’s African Burial Ground

By Darci Clark 12.6.15 for Topics in Historical Archaeology

The African Burial Ground in New York City has been called “one of the most significant American archaeological finds of the twentieth century.”  The 6.7 acre cemetery was in use circa 1712 to 1795, making it the oldest and largest cemetery of African descendants in North America. The site is located in lower Manhattan on Broadway in the vicinity of Duane and Chambers Streets.  Excavations began at this important archaeological site in 1991 in preparation for a federal office building construction project at 290 Broadway. Archaeologists uncovered over 400 burials by the time the dig ended in 1992 amidst political controversy. The African American residents of New York City were concerned that the archaeological dig was being carried out in a disrespectful manner and demanded the excavation and building project be stopped.   Even though there were problems with how the entire archaeological project was handled, there is no doubt that anthropologists and historians have learned a great deal of information about the lives of enslaved Africans in eighteenth-century New York.

Maerschalk Plan of the City of New York 1754

Maerschalk Plan of the City of New York 1754

The Maerschalk Plan of the City of New York map (1754) clearly shows the area known as the “Negros Buriel Ground” [sic]. The modern map shows the burial ground area and its location in relation to the current street layout and buildings in the vicinity of 290 Broadway.  While the burial ground was documented in the 1754 Maerschalk map, the site was gradually forgotten as New York expanded over the next 200 years. The burial ground was originally located in a ravine near a pond named Collect Pond. Around the turn of the nineteenth-century fill was added to level the uneven topography of the area. Between 16 and 25 feet of fill was added which protected many of the graves from construction during those early years since smaller nineteenth-century structures did not require deep foundations. It was only when the General Services Administration (GSA) planned to build a 34-story office building which required much deeper foundations that the African Burial Ground was finally unearthed.

Modern Map of the African Burial Ground

Modern Map of the African Burial Ground

 The GSA was widely criticized for their handling of the archaeological dig and the political firestorm which followed. The archaeological portion of the mandatory environmental impact statement for the project was prepared by HCI, an archaeological salvage and consulting firm hired by the GSA. HCI reported that although the location of the African Burial Ground as described on the Maerschalk map was located on the site, it was likely that previous construction would have destroyed any remains of the cemetery. HCI did mention in their report that there may be intact graves under an old alley where there was no record of structures being built. The GSA once again hired HCI to perform a test excavation in May 1991. A backhoe was used to dig down 30 feet and intact burials were found in situ (in their original position). HCI backfilled the site and notified the GSA of the burials that were discovered. When the GSA asked for an estimate on the number of burials, HCI had to dig up the site again with a backhoe which was against archaeological protocols since graves had already been found at the site. It appeared that even though the GSA was aware there could be burials discovered at the site, they had delayed the archaeological investigation so there would be little time left to perform a full survey of the site before construction was to begin. The GSA made the decision that all the burials must be excavated which was also against normal archaeological procedures. The full scale excavation began in September 1991 and construction commenced one month later in October. It is highly unusual for an archaeological excavation to take place while construction is in progress. This mistake would eventually cause several burials to be fully destroyed and another twenty to be damaged because of construction accidents.

By the third day of archaeological digging it was obvious there were a large number of burials intact. A second team was brought in to assist with analysis of the graves. Unfortunately the people hired, the Metropolitan Forensic Anthropology Team (MFAT), had expertise in criminal investigations and were not experienced in handling burials, African Americans, or skeletal biology. To make matters worse, the HCI team were under orders from the building project manager, John Rossi, to speed up the excavation since he thought it should only take one day to clean a skeleton and remove it. The archaeologists were working eleven hours a day seven days a week to remove two to three burials per day. The hurried excavation caused damage to some skulls and also created a problem with the adequate storage of remains. Proper storage cases could not be made quickly enough to keep up with the demand so skeletal remains were wrapped in newspaper and placed in cardboard boxes. Because of this improper storage practice and other improper environmental control procedures, mold formed on many of the bones causing some deterioration before MFAT even had a chance to clean, study, and interpret the remains.

 It was obvious that the GSA had not made adequate preparations to excavate the site properly and handle the human remains in a respectful and scientific manner. Since the site held the remains of Africans from the era of slavery in colonial New York, the GSA’s apparent insensitivity to these problems caused African American New Yorkers to become outraged and demand something be done about how their ancestor’s remains were being handled. At this point public officials and other archaeologists became very concerned with the project and began to question the GSA’s handling of the situation. Dr. Michael Blakey of Howard University, an expert in skeletal biology, was brought in to inspect the archaeological site and lab work that was being done. He found many problems and it was determined that the archaeologists on site were not equipped to handle the excavation of the African Burial Ground. In addition, the field record of the excavation did not include all the necessary information to study the site effectively, and as a result important research questions about the site and the people buried there had not been asked.

At this point the GSA held public meetings in an effort to inform and involve the local community in the project. The African American community and other concerned citizens became even more distrustful of the GSA as they learned about what was actually taking place at the site. They demanded respectful treatment of the dead and some people voiced the opinion that the remains should be immediately reburied and memorialized and that construction of the building should be stopped altogether.  At a hearing on April 21, 1992 State Senator David Paterson stated “the way the GSA has handled this burial ground symbolizes the desecration of black people.”  Eventually the United States Congress became involved and conducted its own hearings on the subject. It was determined that the GSA had “not fulfilled its legal responsibility with regard to the burial ground and that the terms of its agreements with other agencies were not being met.” These “other agencies” were the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. They had made an agreement with the GSA to develop a comprehensive plan for the site including reburying the remains and responsibility for the research materials and data once the project was completed. Because Congress had determined the GSA did not follow through on its responsibilities, the task of devising a new comprehensive plan for the site was assigned to African American studies experts from Howard University and archaeologists from John Milner Associates. With expertise in studying African American burial grounds, the choice of John Milner Associates was a perfect fit for the project. Dr. Michael Blakely was named Scientific Director of the project and together they became the qualified team which was needed to steer the project to completion and answer the important research questions the original team did not even have the opportunity to consider. They would determine where the enslaved Africans buried at the site were from originally from and how they lived and died.

All archaeological work was stopped at the site following a second Congressional hearing in September 1992. Congress determined the GSA could not build in any area that was not already excavated and that no more human remains could be removed from the site. The fifteen burials which were in the process of being removed were left in place and were filled in. In the end, Dr. Blakely and the team from John Milner Associates were responsible for studying the 419 burials which had been excavated up to that point. These burials would constitute the whole basis of the study called the New York African Burial Ground Project.  Unlike the GSA, Dr. Blakely’s team involved the local African American community from the beginning of their study. Together they determined that skeletal and DNA analysis would be used to research the enslaved African’s “origins, daily life, resistance to enslavement, and the development of African American identities.”

In addition to the skeletal and DNA analysis, the team conducted extensive research into the history of New York during the late 1600s through the late 1700s. The research showed that New York’s enslaved Africans lived in horrible conditions. Skeletal biology studies indicated their lives were filled with disease and painful injuries due to overwork and malnutrition. There was also evidence of broken bones caused by violence or accidental injury in the remains of twenty-three males and eighteen females excavated at the site. Some had suffered multiple fractures which likely occurred at the time of death but it is impossible to determine if the injuries were the result of an accident or a violent attack.  Bone analysis also indicated that many younger people from the ages of fifteen to twenty-four suffered from osteoarthritis due to difficult physical labor.

Burial 335 and 356 Mother and Infant

Burial 335 and 356 Mother and Infant

Researchers were able to learn a great deal of information about the enslaved Africans burial practices and there were many similarities among the graves. Over ninety percent of the excavated adults had been buried in coffins and all of the children had been buried in coffins. Nearly all had their heads and bodies oriented to the west and very few personal funerary objects were found. The most common artifacts found were copper pins which were used to pin together white burial shrouds.  However, there were several burials that exhibited unique characteristics. A woman was interred with her right arm around an infant in Burial 335 & 356. There were seventeen pins around the baby’s remains indicating the infant was wrapped in a shroud. The excessive number of pins used for the infant’s shroud could indicate that the pinning of the cloth had ritual and ceremonial meaning.

Burial 101 is known as Sankofa Man because there is a heart-shaped design, possibly a sankofa symbol originating in Ghana, made with fifty-one iron tacks on the coffin lid. The sankofa and  other symbols were placed on clothing worn to mourn the dead. Another theory is that the pattern is not a sankofa but instead the initials of the deceased and  the date of his death. Whatever the meaning of the design, the West African sankofa has become an important symbol of the African Burial Ground.

Design on Burial 101 Coffin Lid

Design on Burial 101 Coffin Lid

While most graves did not have any unusual artifacts, Burial 6 was unique because it contained several copper alloy buttons. The buttons featured an anchor design which may have been from a man’s naval uniform coat or jacket. One of the most famous burials in the cemetery is Burial 340. A woman around the age of 50 was buried with a strand of beads and cowrie shells around her waist and a bracelet of forty-one glass beads on her right wrist.  Waist beads were an intimate body ornamentation common in African culture. In addition to her jewelry, a four-inch unused clay pipe was buried underneath her. Another unusual feature of Burial 340 was the woman’s filed teeth. Her incisors had been filed to hourglass and peg shapes, a practice which was performed only in Africa. This suggests the woman was born in Africa and not only survived the trip to New York, but lived to be much older than most other enslaved Africans.

Unlike the elderly woman in Burial 340, there were many burials of children under fifteen years of age. More than half of the children buried in the cemetery were less than two years old. It was determined that most of the children under eight years of age were born in New York and likely suffered from malnutrition and the stress of forced labor. High levels of lead were also evident in an examination of the children’s teeth who were born in New York. It is not known what caused the high levels of lead and whether lead poisoning was a factor in the children’s deaths. Conversely, the enslaved Africans who were brought to New York did not exhibit the same high levels of lead in their teeth as those who were born here.

  It took more than ten years for all the lab analysis to be completed. During that time the New York African American community kept fighting for their ancestor’s remains to be reburied and appropriately memorialized. Budgeting issues continued with the GSA who closed down the project for a time in February 2000 because they refused to fund DNA testing for the project. In addition plans for the interpretive center in the main lobby and the exterior memorial were progressing slowly. Finally in 2003 real progress was made. The National Park Service agreed to complete the outdoor memorial and interpretive center with funds appropriated by Congress. Also in October 2003, all the remains were finally reburied in the African Burial Ground. The remains were interred in handmade coffins from Ghana specifically made for the reburial ceremony.

Outdoor Memorial at the African Burial Ground

Outdoor Memorial at the African Burial Ground

The African Burial Ground is an important archaeological site not only because of the historic value, but because it is a symbol of the struggles of enslaved Africans in New York. David Dinkins, the former New York City mayor, wrote: “Millions of Americans celebrate Ellis Island as the symbol of their communal identity in this land. Others celebrate Plymouth Rock. Until a few years ago, African-American New Yorkers had no site to call our own. There was no place which said, we were here, we contributed, we played a significant role in New York’s history right from the beginning…Now we—their descendants—have the symbol of our heritage embodied in lower Manhattan’s African Burial Ground. The African Burial Ground is the irrefutable testimony to the contributions and suffering of our ancestors.”

 Even though the discovery of the African Burial Ground was fraught with controversy it remains one of the most important archaeological finds in United States history. The site shed light on the lives of enslaved Africans in colonial New York who were largely forgotten in comparison to the plight of slaves in the South. Archaeology is a tool which can be used to learn the truth about enslaved Africans since their presence in the historical record was created by their enslavers. Even though their names are unknown, the people buried in the African Burial Ground and their contributions to the city of New York will be always remembered.

WORKS CITED

The African Burial Ground An American Discovery.  Produced and directed by David Kutz for the United States General Services Administration. 1994; Longtail Distribution.net. DVD.

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Berkeley.edu. “The African Burial Ground Controversy.” Accessed 12/5/15. https://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~arihuang/academic/abg/controversy/controversy.html

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NYPL.org. “Explore the African Burial Ground.” Accessed 12/6/15. http://web-static.nypl.org/exhibitions/afb/shell.html