This cemetery provided a rare setting in which the enslaved could assert their humanity and respect their own culture, but not without resistance. The English who held the colony and its African captives objected to the night-time funerary rituals at the site and repeatedly passed laws that attempted to limit funerals to the daytime, limiting those attending to fewer than twelve people and forbidding the use of palls or symbols for the adornment of coffins. These intrusions coincided with English suspicions that funerals were serving as meetings for organized resistance to African enslavement. Also, as part of the municipal Commons, the Burial Ground became the site for executions by hanging, burning, and breaking, in retribution for the African revolt of 1712 and the alleged revolt of 1741. During the 1740s, Europeans also established tanning and pottery industries adjacent to the cemetery, whose refuse we found strewn among the graves. Adding to this desecration, medical students at New York Hospital regularly stole fresh corpses from the Burial Ground for dissection, a practice that eventually led to a "Doctors Riot" in the spring of 1788. In 1794 the African Burial Ground was ordered closed by the, then, American authorities. Yet our researchers have recently found coroner's documents showing that the corpses or fresh burials of African-American children would occasionally be "found on" the cemetery as late as 1796.
     The cemetery was filled and built over by Dutch-Americans in the early nineteenth century. Their cisterns and privies were then dug through the graves. Meanwhile, the African descendants and loved ones of those buried there remained enslaved, and many would continue to be until 1827. Although late nineteenth and twentieth century urban development periodically unearthed human skeletons with little apparent concern for sanctity, the African Burial Ground had, by then, largely faded from everyone's memory.
     In 1991, the United States General Services Administration knowingly began to unearth a portion of the cemetery in order to build a three hundred million dollar Federal office tower. This time archeologists cleared the way, as mandated by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Also mandated by law, however, were basic scientific requirements for the preservation of the site's history, with which the Federal Government had not complied. Most importantly, the Act required public comment and influence in decisions as to how the cemetery would be treated, ranging from the right to advise halting all excavation to the construction of monuments. The Federal Government did not adequately comply with these public requirements and worked expeditiously to remove more than four hundred burials over the course of one year's time. Meanwhile, African Americans in New York City held meetings, religious observances, vigils, and protests at the cemetery's edge.


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August 2000