African Burial Ground National Monument Established
The New York African Burial Ground—the oldest and largest cemetery for enslaved Africans in the United States—was unearthed in 1989 as construction workers prepared to install a 34-story federal office building in lower Manhattan. Following the discovery that the building site was situated above an 18th-century “Negroes Burying Ground,” a crew of archaeologists was employed to conduct an archaeological excavation. In 1991, the construction of the federal office building ensued alongside an extensive archaeological dig that uncovered the skeletons of more than 400 enslaved Africans buried at the cemetery during the early to late 18th century. The excavation and construction project was suspended in 1992 following a congressional mandate issued largely in response to a public demand. The African American New York community pressured the federal government to ensure that the skeletal remains of their African ancestors be appropriately studied and ultimately reinterred.
In 1992, a team of researchers from Howard University’s department of sociology and anthropology began studying the skeletal remains found at the African Burial Ground site. The New York African Burial Ground—formerly referred to as the Negroes Burying Ground—was established in 1712 and used until 1794 as the final resting place for “people of African descent, paupers (poor people), and British and American prisoners of war during the American Revolution” (Hansen and McGowan, 2). The enslaved populations interred at the burial site were believed to have originated from West Africa, West-Central Africa, and the Caribbean, exported to the North American mainland through the Atlantic slave trade.
By 1644 when the British acquired New Amsterdam, subsequently renaming the territory New York in reverence of the Duke of York, increasing numbers of enslaved Africans were channeled into the colony to labor for British colonists. As a consequence of the English acquisition of New Amsterdam, black New Yorkers—enslaved and free—were subject to more restrictive laws that suppressed New York Africans’ ability to participate in the social and religious institutions that existed in colonial New York. With the strict governance of the social, religious, and political welfare of enslaved New Yorkers came orders that regulated the activities of enslaved blacks during non-laboring hours. Due to the special edicts designed for persons of African descent residing in New York City during the colonial period, New York Africans were forced to bury their deceased outside of the New York City limits.
With the suppression of the social and human liberties of enslaved Africans in New York City, enslaved blacks fashioned the African Burial Ground as one of the initial social institutions established by enslaved Africans in the colony. The institution of slavery and its practitioners consistently challenged the humanity of the enslaved who were routinely forced to relinquish their identities through arbitrary “renaming” practices, separated from kin—blood born and fictive, prohibited from the exercise of religious expression, and defrauded the ability to communicate through the use of indigenous African languages. The assault on the African identity, culture, physical and social mobility, and overall humanity, coupled with the legal mandates that prohibited enslaved blacks from sharing burial space with whites, made necessary the African Burial Ground among other Negroes Burying Grounds interspersed throughout the African Diaspora.
West African culture remained a consistent influence on enslaved Africans in the Americas during the colonial and postcolonial periods. The effect of West African culture on enslaved blacks in New York was articulated through the retention of various West African traditions and beliefs, especially as it related to funerary customs. The use of burial shrouds, the ritual adornment of bodies and coffins, and even the physical orientation of the bodies demonstrate links to West African spiritual practices alive in colonial New York City. Researchers involved in the African Burial Ground Project recognized almost immediately the African continuities that existed, reflected in the various ornaments, engravings, jewelry, beads, coins, coffins, and other artifacts uncovered at the site.
LeFlouria, T. L. (2010). African Burial Ground, New York City. In L. M. Alexander & W. C. Rucker (Eds.), Encyclopedia of African American History (Vol. 1, pp. 10-12). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.