The New York African Burial Ground Project:  An Examination of Enslaved Lives, A Construction of Ancestral Ties

by Michael L. Blakey, Ph.D.

Reproduced by permission of the American Anthropological Association from Transfroming Anthropology 7(1):   1998. 
Not for sale or further reproduction.


     It is indeed an honor and privilege for all of those who have worked to restore the dignity of the African Burial Ground to have been afforded an opportunity to share what we have learned with this most important global institution. Last year's  briefing (August 14, 1996 to the United Nation in Geneva, Switzerland), in which I began the discussion to be carried forward today, was met with such fraternal goodwill that word of it has served to motivate our scientists and community activists to push forward with their labor of love for the discovery of truth. The Colonial African Burial Ground of the City of New York presents one of the rarest opportunities for reconstructing the lives and conditions experienced by our common ancestors who were enslaved and forced to build the economic foundations of the place that we know today as the United States of America. We want to consider here any insights that might be gained from our project that pertain to the humane responsibilities of world citizenship.
     The African Burial Ground is a cemetery that was used between the late 1600s and 1796. From ten to twenty percent of the city's inhabitants during this period were African. Once located outside the walls of the Colonial city of New York, the Burial Ground may have originally contained between ten thousand and twenty thousand burials. The skeletons, artifacts, and documents of the people buried there tell volumes about their lives. Yet, the treatment which the cemetery has itself received over the years might alone fill several chapters on the African-American struggle for human rights.
     In colonial New York City, Africans were not permitted to bury their dead in church cemeteries whether or not they had converted to Christianity. The African Burial Ground was a municipal cemetery afforded their use, where they buried their loved ones carefully and with generosity. As examples, our research shows that the bodies were wrapped in linen shrouds with care and methodically positioned in well-built cedar or pine coffins. Women were sometimes buried in the same coffin as their newborn children, both having died at about the same time. In another telling example, a child was found buried with a solid silver ear-bob or pendant, an object of rare economic value for these impoverished people, which apparently had greater value to them as a gesture of care for the deceased child.

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August 2000