Wednesday, December 9, 2009

African Burial Ground

1) Monument outside of visitor’s center. 2009, Mike Ren. 2) Inside the monument. 2009, Mike Ren. 3) Sign indicating National Park status. 2009, Mike Ren.

The African Burial Ground in Manhattan is one of the most abundant sources of knowledge concerning the New York African and African American population of the 17th and 18th centuries. The evidence archaeologists obtain from the remains creates an entirely different picture of New York – one from which African culture and influence has historically been noticeably absent. Without establishing the role of Africans in the shaping of New York’s culture, our understanding of history would be deficient.

Eighteen years ago, a team of archaeologists in charge of surveying and approving land in lower Manhattan for the construction of a new federal building discovered something quite extraordinary. Upon excavation, skeletal remains, which were determined to be of African descent, were unearthed – this was to be expected, as the crew knew that the site was an ancient African Burial Ground. What the team did not expect to find, however, was the sheer number of graves excavated– more than 400 graves were discovered, which grossly exceeded the team’s original estimate of 50. As the investigation continued, priceless artifacts and information were revealed, which has allowed archaeologists and historians to better understand the African American involvement in the creation and development of New York.

Once the site of several federal buildings, this historic piece of land is now preserved as a National Monument through the National Park Service. A stone well inscribed with the symbols of different African religions sits in front of the visitor’s center. Artifacts, such as beads, pins, and coins, are on display inside. The Sankofa symbol, an African bird that represents the connection between past and present, is engraved many places throughout the exhibit and monument. An exhibit dedicated to the story of the African Burial Ground and the education of the public about this lost society is also a part of the visitor’s center.

“ ‘Ground truth,’ ” (p. 9) Hansen and McGowan explain, is evidence obtained from the burial grounds of oppressed people that is oftentimes the only correct way to learn about the history of these individuals. Because the history of blacks has been skewed and misreported by their oppressors, this evidence is invaluable to the correction of the history of New York. African labor was used to build many cities, such as New Amsterdam; slaves were continually exploited in the houses and businesses of slave owners, performing a wide variety of tasks; one grave affirmed the presence of blacks in the US Navy, along with their participation in the Revolutionary War. The Office of Public Education and Interpretation for the African Burial Ground was established in 1993 to appease those who wanted to use this discovery to rewrite history. Although these remains are celebrated today, they were ignored for over a hundred years with the construction of streets and buildings covering them. Because it has taken centuries for this information to surface (literally), this proves that white privilege has been prevalent throughout the establishment of the United States. Today, however, the African American community takes a stand for their part in history.

- Katie Gordon and Mike Ren


1. Frohne, Andrea E. The African Burial Ground in the New York City: Manifesting and Representing Spirituality of Space. Diss. Graduate School of Binghamton University State University of New York, 2002. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Inc., 2003. Print.

2. Hansen, Joyce, and Gary McGowan. Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence: The Story of New York's African Burial Ground. New York: Henry Holy and Company, Inc., 1998. Print.

3. Pearce, Susan C. Africans on this Soil: The Counter-Amnesia of the New York African Burial Ground. Diss. New School for Social Research, 1996. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Inc., 1997. Print.

4. The African Burial Ground: Return to the Past to Rebuild the Future. National Park Service. Web. .

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