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A Trip To The African Burial Ground National Monument

There’s a painting in the African Burial Ground National Monument’s Museum of a sick African slave being tossed overboard from a slave ship. This senseless act, legal during the time of the slave trade, came to mind the night I saw police officers choking a shackled George Floyd to death on the news while he pleaded for his life.

In the months following Floyd’s death incidents of racial profiling and police brutality against black men led to calls for defunding the police. Rioting and protests rocked the country. I was filled with despair and sympathy and finally, I decided to visit the African Burial Ground National Monument that I had not visited in twenty years largely because it led to a peaceful clash between the African-American community and the government, a relief from the violence surrounding Floyd’s death.

This national monument is the largest colonial-era cemetery center for enslaved persons and has possibly the largest collection of American colonial remains of any ethnic group. It is operated by the National Park Service (NPS) in New York City and includes a Memorial on 64 Duane Street and a Visitors Center and Museum located at 290 Broadway.

A park ranger greeted me in the Visitors Center. Her field green NPS uniform, designed for the outdoors, seemed out of place in downtown Manhattan not far from the business world of Wall Street. The ranger gave a short introductory talk.

“The African burial site is one of the most significant archeological discoveries of the Twentieth Century,” the ranger said. “The intact remains of 419 men, women and children of African descent were discovered. Half of the total were children, believed to be a testament of the high mortality rate at the time.”

The ranger invited me and other visitors to see a documentary movie. I hadn’t seen the movie before which starts with the purchase of property at 290 Broadway by the General Service Administration (GSA) that handles government contracting. The GSA would solve a forgotten mystery, namely what happened to the thousands of bodies in the original African burial ground.

Before the government could begin construction on the property at 290 Broadway, The GSA had to prepare an environmental impact statement that included an archaeological survey. The architects had examined old maps and knew an African burial ground existed centuries ago, but later maps showed it had disappeared.

What happened to the bodies in the original African burial ground had always been a historical mystery. It was originally outside the city limits because negroes could not be buried inside the city limits. However, as the city expanded, the African burial ground was closed in 1790 and the land divided into lots for sale. The graves were never reinterred.

The answer to this historical riddle was soon answered when construction on the site uncovered the remains of eight people. The GSA halted excavation of the bodies until an advisory group could be established to address what would be an unexpected discovery of historic magnitude.

African Burial Ground National MonumentAmong the advisory group’s conclusions: Incredibly, New York City’s growth over two centuries had obscured the graves of the older African cemetery, because layers of fill material and building construction over the years had protected the human remains of the 1790 African burial ground, until it’s rediscovery in 1991.

The GSA’s plan was to excavate and re-inter any bodies that were discovered at another location and continue construction. This plan was soundly rejected by the African-American community, which united and made preserving the bodies on their original site a cause célèbre.

Nationally known figures like Maya Angelou, a future Nobel Peace Prize winner, and noted actor, James Earl Jones, joined national and local organizations and concerned citizens, to stop the GSA’s plan. The GSA, in turn, tried to block re-internment of the bodies on the site of origin.

The battle between the GSA and the African-American community was peaceful but heated at times and made national and international headlines. This was in contrast to protests by the African-American community which, since the civil rights movements of the 1960s, have been marked by violence. The voices of Dr. Martin Louis King who advocated peaceful protest and Malcolm X, who later in his life espoused peaceful protest, died violently.

A Congressional Hearing followed on July 27, 1992 in which Mayor David Dinkins, New York City’s first African American Mayor, and New York State Senator, David Paterson, who was blind and an African American, testified. Paterson would later become New York State’s first African American governor. The activists, who wanted the bodies re-interred in their original site after a proper burial, prevailed over the GSA which was allowed to continue with much of its original building plan while allowing for the re-internment of the bodies on its original site, which would become the African Burial Ground National Monument.

Several minutes of the Congressional Hearing were shown in the movie as well as the excavation of the 419 bodies by students from Howard University.  Howard University is a private, federally chartered African-American research university in Washington, D.C. that is classified as a high research activity institution. Noted scholars studied each bone fragment, and burial object. Most of the dead were enslaved persons, although some were freemen. Among the artifacts found with the bodies were a silver pendant, shroud pins, and coins.

The preservation of the skeletons at Howard University provided unique scientific evidence of the physical damage caused by strenuous manual labor: stiffened and inflamed joints, arthritis, bone spurs, bone degeneration. In one instance, a young man in his 30’s had a ridge of bone in his back that was worn down so badly from hard labor that he appeared to be in his eighties. Another woman’s skull was cracked from carrying heavy weights on her head. The overall condition of the skeletons showed how insufficient the diets were: many had developed rickets that caused their long leg bones to curve and scurvy causing softening of their gums.

After the excavation and cataloguing was finished in Howard University, The Memorial was dedicated and opened to the public on October 5, 2007. This was pursuant to a Presidential proclamation of February 27, 2006.

Watching the movie enhanced my knowledge about slavery in New York City. I was surprised to learn New York City had more enslaved persons than any other city in the United States except Charleston, North Carolina. The actual number of bodies in the burial site may have been as high as fifteen thousand. Consider that New York City had a population of 25,000 at the time of the Revolution.

The Memorial, which occupies a sixth of an acre, is considerably smaller than the cemetery of the 1700s. Understandable considering the number buried, but when I learned this, I was amazed because I was familiar with the nearby courts: the International Court of Trade, located at One Federal Plaza, and the State Supreme Court, located at One Foley Square. Both Courts are a short walk from the Memorial on 64 Duane Street and were likely built on ground that was once part of the African cemetery. How ironic that the halls of justice were built on the grounds of slavery.

Finally, the reality of childhood mortality saddened me. I couldn’t help feeling the sorrow any parent would feel. As the ranger had mentioned, about half of the 419 bodies were children. Many undoubtedly died because they lived in sub-standard living conditions.

Children who survived their first years went to work at age five or six. Girls did the same domestic work as adult African women: fetching water, cooking, sewing, and making household items. Boys often had the perilous work of ‘chimney sweeps.’ In colonial times, chimneys were hazardous; if not kept clean, sparks or soot buildups could cause the roof to catch fire. The chimney sweep was usually a ‘climbing boy’ who did the cleaning by climbing up the dark chimney and scraping the soot from the walls of the shaft. This meant inhaling the dust and dirt. The ‘climbing boy’ often suffered numerous health related problems from inhaling the soot, scrapes, sprains, and the result was often an early death.

After the movie, I visited the Memorial, which I had previously visited, located around the corner. I passed by an identification marker letting me know I’m entering ‘Sacred Ground,’ a reminder there are 419 bodies interred in the seven mounds to the right. This is sectioned off and is a cemetery on ‘sacred ground.’ Other lands in the country designated as ‘sacred ground’ include the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, guarded twenty-hours a day.

After Floyd’s murder, a local movement emerged to make the area where Floyd was murdered sacred. Flowers, photos, and even a cement barricade was erected. But the city removed these. Perhaps rightly so, perhaps not. At the time people were stirred by the senseless murder and were rioting across the country. Less than six months after Floyd’s murder, the Minneapolis City Council designated a two-block area would be named George Perry Floyd Square.

I visited the Memorial’s most intriguing structure: The Ancestral Libation Chamber with its identifying inscription:

All who were lost

For all those who were stolen

For all those who were left behind

For all those who were not forgotten

 

African Burial Ground National MonumentI had read these lines before Floyd’s murder, but the impact was much greater now.

It is for the millions who made the journey across the Atlantic in chains (‘All who were lost’ and ‘who were stolen’) and many who died enroute (‘who were left behind’) and whose lives are cherished today (‘those who were not forgotten’).

This poem is inscribed next to an Adinkra Symbol known as a Sankofa, which means to ‘Learn From The Past.’ When I first saw the Sankofa I couldn’t help wondering if Pop star Janet Jackson, sister of Michael Jackson, was influenced by the discovery of the African burial site because she has a Sankofa tattoo on her arm, and she used a Sankofa on her Burning Rope album, which came out in 1993.

Passing through the Ancestral Libation Chamber is designed as an esoteric journey covering deep spiritual ideas by recreating the experience of boarding a slave ship. Entering the Libation Chamber’s narrow construction, I lingered to experience the cramped feeling an enslaved person would have felt, the despair chillingly evoked when I looked up to see the sun far above my head, a distant friend when viewed from deep inside a ship’s hold.

Exiting the Ancestral Libation Chamber, I walked down the Spiritual Processional Ramp which leads to the Circle of Diaspora.

Surrounding the Circle are symbols from different cultures and backgrounds. I knew the names and meaning of several that I recognized as Adinkra Symbols, and also the names of others like the Egyptian Ankh Symbol, referred to as the Key Of Life. The placement of each symbol represented a slave vessel on its voyage across the Atlantic.

The Circle of Diaspora is a space for thought and spiritual reflection. A reminder that 419 former slaves are buried nearby. I spent time alone in meditation and, as I imagined how terrible the trip across the Atlantic must have been in a cramped space, barely able to see sunlight, traveling to an uncertain future, I drew spiritual power from the combined spiritual strength of the symbols lining the Circle. I realized it took a civil war to end slavery in this country and asked myself what it would take to bring racial justice and peace to the country. I realized the sacrifices made by George Floyd, Martin Luther King, and other African-Americans were a step in that direction.

Before exiting and heading home, I sat for a final moment to say a prayer for George Floyd. I knew the ancestors of the 419 Africans, whoever they may be, have closure and dignity. And I was grateful that George Floyd will always be remembered.

———-

Images: African Burial Ground, Manhattan, New York (National Park Service Public Domain)

Paul R. Paradise
Paul R. Paradisehttp://www.paulrparadise.com
Mr. Paradise is a mystery writer. His latest novel was a finalist in the 2022 Killer Nashville Claymore Competition (Best Investigatory Category). He has interviewed Frank Abignale whose life story was made into the movie, “Catch Me If You Can,” and he is an authority on the crime trademark counterfeiting, which the FBI calls the ‘business crime of the 21st Century.’ www.paulrparadise.com

3 COMMENTS

  1. An important contribution to the public’s understanding of the oppression and suffering of enslaved Black people. Very articulate, informative, and respectfully written.

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