Last week I showed my anthropology students a documentary film, ”The United States of Hoodoo." It follows African-American author and performance artist Darius James on a journey of spiritual discovery upon his return to the United States from Germany. One of his first stops is a visit to the African Burial Ground National Monument in lower Manhattan with friend Kanene Holder, who is a performance artist, school teacher, and Zora Neal Hurston scholar. The monument is inscribed with many of the symbols my students have been learning about in class.
This review tells the story:
Returning home to Connecticut, the film follows James’ coping with his father’s recent death and his collection of masks. Looking at his father’s collection, James decides to go on a journey into the world of voodoo and its relation to American culture. Although James’ father liked masks. he always attributed it to aesthetic interest and not the deeper spiritual history behind those masks. But James wants to start scratching beneath the surface.
Not only is the film about James own self-discovery through learning about vodou, but also uncovering the African and Caribbean bloodlines that run through American culture, but are often hidden under the guise of a Christian culture or disregarded as only art ... For example, Holder and James spoke about how education about slavery is given little importance in school textbooks even though slavery formed the basis of American capitalism; the irony made more clear as they stood in the African Burial Ground, which is near Wall Street in New York City
After the film ended and during class discussion, several my students brought up the fact that they had never heard of the African Burial Ground monument and museum. They were completely unaware of its existence.
My students are from New York (many are from New York City), and I admit I was surprised that they had never even heard about it. I gave an impromptu lesson on the history of slavery in New York City, aware that they do know people were enslaved in our Hudson Valley region, since the campus library is named for Sojourner Truth. They were not taught about slave markets in the city nor the fact that slave labor built the Wall Street area.
I talked with them briefly about my specific interest in the African Burial Ground, since I was a City University of New York (CUNY) graduate student in anthropology at the time of the discovery of human remains at a General Services Administration construction site in lower Manhattan. Those remains turned out to be African burials. There was an enormous controversy that took place around the treatment of the remains involving CUNY archaeology faculty, New York City’s black community, and the federal government.
The story of the controversy begins with the General Services Administration in 1990. Of course the real beginning of the story goes back 300 years earlier, when Africans were enslaved by the Dutch and brought to the New World, to what was then New Amsterdam.
The origins of the African Burial Ground extend to the beginnings of Dutch settlement on the island of Manhattan. In 1626, the Dutch West Indies Company imported its first slaves from West Africa. The Dutch viewed slavery in a more ephemeral manner than their British counterparts. For instance, Africans were allowed to obtain partial to full freedom status. Accordingly, freed slaves were allowed to purchase land and legally marry. They began purchasing land grants north of the Collect Pond, a spring fed pond located along a ravine in the area two blocks north of City Hall, to 34th Street.
When the Dutch handed over power to the British in 1664, the African population had reached 40%. The British continued slave trading and by the Revolutionary War, New York had more slaves than the other colonies second to Charleston, South Carolina. Slavery in New York played an important role in the development of the colony as a major port city. Merchants depended on slaves for operating the port, building ships, farming, and milling. Yet the treatment of slaves by the British was harsher than the Dutch. They imposed more restrictions and rescinded the rights of former freed slaves. Furthermore, the British imposed a ban on African burials in formal churchyards in Lower Manhattan in 1696.
Under British rule, slaves were subjected to nighttime curfews and were not allowed to congregate in large groups. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Africans began to use the area two blocks north of where City Hall is located today as a cemetery. The geography consisted of a ravine that ran east to northeast from Broadway to Collect Pond and was considered outside the city limits. It is in this location that African slaves were allowed to congregate and practice their cultural traditions of night-time burials. Archaeologists estimated that over 20,000 burials exist in this seven-acre plot.
Fast forward to the early 1990s. Archaeology published “Bones & Bureaucrats” by Spencer PM Harrington in the March/April 1993 issue, which tells part of the story in detail.
The bones of 420 enslaved Africans found last year under a parking lot two blocks north of New York's City Hall comprise the largest and earliest collection of African-American remains, and possibly the largest and earliest collection of American colonial remains of any ethnic group. The excavation of the old Negros Burial Ground has challenged the popular belief that there was no slavery in colonial New York, and has provided unparalleled data for the Howard University scholars who will study the remains of New York's first African Americans. But as archaeologists removed the remains one by one, they dug up age-old resentment and suspicion with every trowel-full of earth. Scholarly excitement was tempered by the protest of the city's black community, which felt its concerns were not being addressed in decisions about the excavation and disposition of the remains. In the flurry of protests, negotiations, and political maneuverings, the controversy took on an undeniably racial cast. The African Burial Ground, as it is known today, became a "microcosm of the issues of racism and economic exploitation confronting New York City," says Michael L. Blakey, a Howard University anthropologist and the burial ground's scientific director.
The old Negro Burial Ground was paved over and buildings were built atop it, and in 1990 New York City sold a tract of land which contained the burial ground to the General Services Administration (GSA). That’s when the past was unearthed. GSA planned to build a high-rise tower.
Five months before the GSA bought the sites from the city, the agency hired Historic Conservation and Interpretation (HCI), an archaeological salvage and consulting firm, to write the archaeological portion of an environmental impact statement for the 290 Broadway site. Such statements are a legal requirement before any new construction using federal funds can begin. HCI's report identified the area as a section of the old Negros Burial Ground and included historical maps indicating its approximate location. But the impact statement predicted that nineteenth- and twentieth- century construction at the site would have destroyed any significant archaeological deposits. It read in part: "The construction of deep sub-basements would have obliterated any remains within the lots that fall within the historic bounds of the cemetery."
Still, the statement left open the possibility of some human remains being preserved under an old alley that once bisected Duane and Reade streets. That the GSA purchased the land despite this possibility suggests that the agency was betting on HCI's overall assessment that few, if any, human remains would be found there. In retrospect, GSA regional director William Diamond admits that the agency would never have bought the land if it had known it would have to remove hundreds of skeletons before sinking the office tower foundation.
In May 1991, six months after purchasing the land, the GSA hired HCI to investigate the possibility that there were undisturbed burials in the alley area. By the end of the summer the firm started to find human bones. In September a full-scale excavation was under- way, and on October 8 Diamond held a press conference to announce the discovery of the remains. One year later, the last of some 420 skeletons had been removed from the site to Lehman College in the Bronx, where they were undergoing conservation before being transferred to Howard University for more detailed study.
I remember this really well, since I was one of the graduate students invited to sit on a faculty committee investigating what had gone wrong, and how to respond to black community outrage. The remains which were supposedly “undergoing conservation” were deposited into cardboard boxes and stored in a leaky damp room up at Lehman. There were no plans at the time to involve Howard University or Dr. Michael Blakey, a renowned physical anthropologist who also happens to be black.
This description of the controversy matches my memories of what occurred.
African American disapproval increased when an accident occurred at the site which destroyed several burials. A backhoe dug into part of the site in order to pour a concrete footpath for the office building. The accident was reportedly due to the reliance on out of date maps which reported the area to be outside the area of the site. Yet another concern of the African American community was that the find be interpreted from an African American point of view. However, the GSA enlisted a group called the Metropolitan Forensic Anthropology Team (MFAT), of which the community knew nothing. Any suggestions to GSA that they work with African American specialists such as Michael Blakey at Howard University were ignored outright.
To make matters worse, HCI seemed unable to produce a research plan to outline conservation methods or research goals. This suggested to the African American community that there was a problem with the team and the excavation. Edward Rustch's response to this was that GSA was overworking the team while simultaneously stressing to them the millions of public money being lost to the project, thus pressuring them to finish the excavation as soon as possible.
In April 1992, black activists staged a protest by forming a blockade around the site which prevented GSA from pouring concrete for the foundation of the building: clearly it was the GSA's intention that the development go on as planned, despite the importance of the find, both historically for the nation, and culturally for the African American community. The community was unhappy with the storage of the remains, which were being held in Lehman College. The bones had been wrapped in newspaper and placed in cardboard boxes for shipping to the college. Newspaper has a slight acidity which could have potentially damaged the bones, not to mention the disrespect the African American community felt this showed towards the remains. Fortunately no damage was actually done, but according to Blakey, who visited the storage facility, if the remains had spent more time is those conditions it was possible that mold growth or other damages may have occurred
In 2003, Archaeology interviewed Dr. Blakey in an article titled “Return to the African Burial Ground” after he participated in the re-interment of the remains of 419 Africans excavated from the site. The ceremony was called the Rites of Ancestral Return.
This was Blakey’s response, and thoughts about the ceremony :
You were one of the speakers during the ceremonies. What did you talk about?
I talked about where they came from: Congo, Ghana, Ashanti, Benin. These were African states that were war torn--torn by the slave trade that was driven by the demand for labor in the Americas and Europe. I spoke of these people as captives. I talked about the harsh conditions they found in New York. They were malnourished, diseased. Infant mortality was high. Women were reproducing below population replacement. Because of their conditions and work stresses and high infant mortality they were not reproducing. The enslaved population was increasing due to importation. Slaveholders replaced them by getting children ready to work.
I also emphasized that so many people had worked together for the dignity of the people who were buried in the African Burial Ground. I thanked really three main groups, the community activists, the legislators--politicians like Mayor Dinkins, State Senator Patterson, Congressman Nadler, Congressman Rangel. Without legislators and without the community that day would not have occurred. The third group I thanked was the researchers. I thanked them for their dedication to an effort that went beyond science--that was also about human rights.
What do you mean by human rights?
There has been some discussion at the U.N. about the right to know. For descendants of the enslaved in different parts of the world to have the right to know about the past and the right to memorialize history so that it might not happen again. With the project, we knew that we were peeling off layers of obscurity. We were also doing something that scholars within the African diaspora have been doing for about 150 years and that is realizing that history has political implications of empowerment and disempowerment. That history is not just to be discovered but to be re-discovered, to be corrected, and that African-American history is distorted. Omissions are made in order to create a convenient view of national and white identity at the expense of our understanding our world and also at the expense of African-American identity. So that the project of history--in this case using archaeology and skeletal biology--is a project meant to help us understand something that has been systematically hidden from us. And that involved us in a struggle. We're all good, balanced, even-handed scientists and humanists. But with the African Burial Ground we found ourselves standing with a community that wanted to know things that had been hidden from view, buried, about who we are and what this society has been. And in order to do that we found ourselves having to wrestle with a giant government agency [The General Services Agency (GSA), the federal body that owned the land where the African Burial Ground was discovered] that was dismissive and arbitrary.
One of the politicians who made a difference was Congressman Augustus “Gus” Savage (D-IL):
In one of his final acts as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Public Buildings and Grounds, excavation and construction at the site of the African Burial Ground in New York City was temporarily halted in 1992, pending further evaluation by the General Services Administration, after Savage was able to leverage his reputation as a national political figure to bring attention to the more controversial aspects of the project.
The New York Preservation Archive Project states:
Congressman and Chairman of the House of Representatives on Buildings and Grounds Augustus Savage informed GSA that funding would be stopped until the matters concerning the burial ground were renegotiated. Construction soon stopped, and the archaeological excavations were taken over by John Milner and Associates. The remains were relocated to Howard University’s Department of Anthropology. President George H. Bush signed a law prohibiting the construction of the pavilion site and approved a $3 million fund for a memorial site on the burial ground.
Here is the relevant section of the law that was passed:
New York. SEC. 16. The Administrator of General Services shall immediately cease construction and archaeological excavation on the pavilion portion of the Foley Square Federal Building until such time as a plan is submitted to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations for prior approval. Such plan shall not result in the continued exhumation of skeletal remains from the "Negro Burial Ground" and shall be accompanied by a reprogramming of sufficient funds but not more than $3,000,000 to modify the pavilion foundation of the Foley Square Federal Building in New York, New York, prevent further deterioration of the "Negro Burial Ground", and contain appropriate measures to memorialize the burial site. The Administrator of General Services shall submit the plan to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations within 60 days of the enactment of this Act. Nothing in this section shall prohibit the continued construction on the tower portion of the Foley Square Federal Building project.
The design for the monument and memorial site was the artistic vision of Haitian American architect Rodney Leon, and was detailed in this article titled, “Architect's vision comes alive for African Burial Ground.”
"We had certain objectives that we established early on that were guiding principles for how the memorial was developed," he said. "One was to establish the site as a sacred site. Whatever we designed needed to have a sense of sacredness about it, so ritual and spirituality needed to play a role.
"But we also wanted this element of being able to feel that the memorial is something that you can participate in."
"It's just a magnificent piece - architecturally, esthetically, but most importantly, spiritually," said Howard Dotson, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, who was active in the Monument project since the graves were discovered.
"This is or should become a pilgrimage site for all people of African descent, especially those who come from the enslaved populations who owe a debt of gratitude to these 17th- and 18th-century prisoners who were not only central to building New York City, but America as we know it today."
The memorial was officially dedicated on Oct. 5, about 16 years after workmen unearthed the first bodies from what turned out to be a 6-acre African slave burial ground covering a large swath of lower Manhattan.
You can read more about the architects’ vision at the GSA website.
A four-part series on the burial ground was produced for young adult audiences. “The African Burial Ground: An American Discovery“ is narrated by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, and is well worth watching no matter your age.
The African Burial Ground: An American discovery is a four part series designed for in-classroom use by young adults, principally US high school students. A general audience interested in the history of the African American experience in New York, urban archaeology or social activism will also find these programs fascinating.
Part One, The Search, explores the search and discovery of the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan. It examines the archaeological dig that resulted in unearthing the remains of some 400 African men, women and children.
Part Two, a History, presents the never-before-told-story of the history of Africans and African Americans in New York City from 1613 until July 4th, 1827 -- NYC's Emancipation Day.
Part Three, Politics and the People, documents the impact of local citizens upon the African Burial Ground. Witnessing the conflict between "the people" and an agency of the United States Government, this segment highlights an essential and important civics lesson: how citizens can change the course of history.
Part Four, An Open Window, presents the long-range impact of the African Burial Ground and its greater cultural effect on art, literature, history, science and education in the United States.
I am very aware of Northern slavery, and have traced my black ancestors in the north who were held in bondage, as well as a Dutch ancestor who owned slaves in upstate New York. But when I worked in Lower Manhattan it rarely entered my consciousness that the sidewalks I traversed in the midst of bustling crowds were taking me past the site of New York’s original slave market.
The Mapping the African-American Path project (MAAP) has a description of that market where humans were bought, sold, rented, and traded as commodities.
In 1711, New York was growing quickly, and the growing needs of the city were often supplied by slave labor. Nearly 1,000 out of about 6,400 New Yorkers were black, and at least 40 percent of the white households included a slave. In these homes, enslaved workers cooked, washed, sewed, hauled water, emptied the chamber pots, swept out the fireplaces and the chimneys, and cared for the children. Along the East River they built, loaded, and unloaded, the ships. They cleared the land uptown, and then planted and harvested the crops. And up and down the narrow streets they pedaled their master’s goods and even supplied the city’s first fast foods—fresh oysters and steaming hot corn on the cob.
As the number of slaves imported into the city soared, barrel makers, butchers, carpenters, blacksmiths, and tin workers began to purchase young enslaved men in order to teach them their trades. Typically, when a slave owner ran out of work, they hired their slaves out at half the rate of free labor.
Often the slaves themselves were sent out to find work. In a time when fear of a slave uprising was ever-present, the sight of so many enslaved men walking the streets looking to be hired caused alarm. Fearful white citizens began to complain. They demanded a market where slaves could be hired, bought, and sold. Finally, on December 13, 1711, the City Council passed a law “that all Negro and Indian slaves that are let out to hire…be hired at the Market house at the Wall Street Slip…” This market, known as the Meal Market (because grains were sold there), was located at the foot of Wall Street on the East River. It was the city’s first slave market.
What is rarely mentioned about the Tontine and the Merchant’s Coffee House is that a brisk business was done there in the buying and selling of slaves. In “A History of Negro Slavery in New York,” Edgar J. McManus writes, “slave auctions were held weekly, sometimes daily, at the Merchant’s Coffee House, the Fly Market, Proctor’s Vendue House, and the Meal Market. All the commission houses profited from the trade to some extent, and some—like The Meal Market—were almost exclusively markets for the sale or hire of slaves.”
More on slavery in New York:
From 1701 to 1726, officially, some 1,570 slaves were imported from the West Indies and another 802 from Africa. As it had under the Dutch, the colony continued to import relatively few slaves from Africa directly, except occasional cargoes of children under 13. The actual numbers were much higher, because smugglers made liberal use of the long, convoluted coast of Long Island. In some years illegal shipment of slaves on a single vessel outnumbered the official imports to the whole colony. As a result, New York soon had had the largest colonial slave population north of Maryland. From about 2,000 in 1698, the number of the colony's black slaves swelled to more than 9,000 adults by 1746 and 13,000 by 1756. Between 1732 and 1754, black slaves accounted for more than 35 percent of the total immigration through the port of New York. And that doesn't count the many illegal cargoes of Africans unloaded all along the convoluted coast of Long Island to avoid the tariff duties on slaves. In 1756, slaves made up about 25 percent of the populations of Kings, Queens, Richmond, New York, and Westchester counties.
The Dutch legacy left its mark on New York slavery, even after the British occupation. The British at first handled slaves in New York on the same relatively humane terms the Dutch had set. The population already was racially mixed, and slavery in New York at first was passed down not exactly by race, but by matrilineal inheritance: the child of a male slave and a free woman was free, the child of a female slave and a free man was a slave. By the 18th century, through this policy, New York had numerous visibly white persons held as slaves.
But after 1682, as the number of slaves rose (in many places more rapidly than the white population) fears of insurrection mounted, restrictions were applied, and public controls began to be enacted. By that year, it had become illegal for more than four slaves to meet together on their own time; in 1702 the number was reduced to three, and to ensure enforcement each town was required to appoint a "Negro Whipper" to flog violators. In a place where slaves were dispersed in ones and twos among city households, this law, if enforced, would have effectively prohibited slaves from social or family life.
Memorializing New York’s Municipal Slave Market
In 2011, Chris Cobb was researching an article on Occupy Wall Street for Domus, the Italian architecture magazine, when he made a startling discovery: a municipal slave market had once stood not far from occupied Zuccotti Park.
This finding prompted years of research and lobbying by the artist, writer, and activist, an effort that culminated last weekend with the unveiling of a Parks Service plaque marking the location with a period drawing and two paragraphs of explanatory text. The ceremony inaugurating the marker at 100 Wall Street was attended by Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray, and included a reading by poet Yusef Komunyakaa of “The African Burial Ground,” a work he had originally contributed to the March 2014 issue of Poetry magazine.
Here’s the text of Chris Cobb’s petition to Mayor Bloomberg:
December 13th is the 300th anniversary of the law establishing the first slave market in New York. That market was located at the end of Wall Street where present day Water Street is. Yet there is not a single sign, plaque, marker, statue, memorial or monument with any reference to slavery or the slave trade in Lower Manhattan (with the exception of the African Burial Ground memorial).
The fact is that New York’s first City Hall was built with slave labor. The first Congress passed the Bill of Rights there and George Washington gave his inaugural speech there. Slaves helped build the wall that Wall Street is named for. Slavery was such a big part of early New York that during the colonial era one in five people living in New York was an enslaved African. One in five. Yet there are no permanent signs acknowledging the role slaves played in early New York.
Even after the discovery of a massive, 6.6 acre burial ground where Africans - free and enslaved - were buried, with thousands of individuals possibly still in the ground, their contribution to New York is and has been almost completely invisible.
Please sign this petition asking that permanent signage be put up acknowledging the role of the African Slave Trade in the development of early New York and to finally recognize the contributions slaves made to New York. After 300 years it is finally time to tell their story.
Rememory is a word the Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison used for historical events that have been lost and recovered.
On June 27, 2015 an original building was remembered. A plaque commemorating the slave market that stood in New York City on the East River at Wall Street was planted in the soil, erected at the site of the original building.
A Brooklyn councilman, community leaders, activist students and other New Yorkers contributed to making the city aware of its past. The mayor and his wife gave a speech at the dedication and an award-winning poet recited a poem to lost colonial-era ancestors and history, but none of these events were enough. So much more has to be done to recognize the contributions of people who passed through the slave market.
The plaque marking the site on Wall Street between Pearl and Water Streets was proposed by Brooklyn writer, artist and activist, Christopher Cobb. The language for the plaque was crafted by the New York City Parks Department and the City’s Landmark Preservation Commission, with assistance from Christopher Moore, former director of the Schomburg Center for Black Culture, the research branch of the New York Public Library in Harlem. Many people contributed directly and indirectly.
WNYC radio had an audio report: Mayor Unveils Marker on Wall Street, Where Slaves Were Sold
“It was a vile, vile trade that persisted for more than 50 years right here," Mayor Bill deBlasio said at a ceremonial unveiling of the marker. "You could come here any day and see it happening and, somehow, it was considered normal in this city."
Slavery was deeply embedded in local life. The marker notes that "by the mid-18th century, approximately one in five people living in New York City was enslaved and almost half of Manhattan households included at least one slave." The Wall Street slave market flourished under such circumstances; it persisted on what used to be the Lower Manhattan waterfront from 1711 to 1762. But the city profited from the slave trade far beyond the exploitation of free labor.
New York financial firms provided much of the capital and expertise that kept the slave system running: they bankrolled Southern plantations, insured slaves as property, and used them as collateral for loans. And countless companies thrived within New York's role as a major hub in the Triangular Trade, which sent slaves and the goods they produced in a constant flow around the Atlantic Ocean from England to Africa to North America.
New York State abolished slavery in 1827, but companies in New York City kept accruing wealth from slavery until the end of the Civil War. For example, the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn refined sugar cane and molasses produced by slaves in the Caribbean.
Last year I wrote about an amazing art installation by Kara Walker at the Domino Sugar Factory in “Sugar, slavery, and subtlety” (photos by Eddie C).
If you get a chance to visit lower Manhattan, look for the plaque, and visit the Burial Ground Memorial. If that is impossible, please pass this history on.