While the disrespectful treatment of the cemetery and its descendant community by Euro-American controlled institutions had not qualitatively changed since the 1600s, the African-descended community had acquired greater political influence than it had in the days of the Doctors Riots. In July of 1992, the Mayor of the City (the first African American elected to that office), New York State Legislators, and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington were empowered to step in and, despite opposition, brought a halt to construction on behalf of the ground-swell of community concern in New York, and in keeping with Federal law. Also by virtue of public pressure, the New York Landmarks Commission organized a successful effort to establish the original six-acre site as a  National and Historic Landmark. Yet 427 human remains and artifacts had already been unearthed, and the building of the main part of the office tower was allowed to proceed. About one-third of the city block planned for construction was to be used solely for memorialization. A Federal Steering Committee, consisting primarily of African-American leaders, was established to determine the future fate of the site.
     It was under these circumstances that The Cobb Biological Anthropology Laboratory of Howard University, the leading African-American research university, presented its research proposals to the responsible agencies and directly to community activists. The previous archaeological activity had removed remains without an adequate research plan. Recognizing the great historical importance of this site, the earliest and largest anthropological find for interpreting African American history, we worked rapidly and collectively as a community of scientists to ensure that an alternative research design was available, one that could better inform the descendant community about the potential value of conducting research on the remains that had already been unearthed. In keeping with the long tradition of activist scholarship and public engagement among African-America scholars, our principle was to seek an informed decision on the part of our community. Guided by our understanding of the efforts of indigenous peoples everywhere, we realized that it was wrong of scientists to arrogate to ourselves the right to determine the disposition of human remains and sacred objects against the wishes of descendants. We would abide by, indeed welcome, the decision of the community as to whether there would be research or immediate reburial of remains. However, if there was to be research, it would be done according to scientific standards of accuracy. After a long process of public information sharing, permission was granted, the Federal Government provided funding, and the remains were brought to Howard University for a study that will end with reburial and memorialization by the year 2000.


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August 2000