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June 16, 2019

BLACK HISTORY MONTH 2019: Ancestors at rest in Manhattan’s historic African Burial Ground

February 7, 2019
A woman waves incense in front of hand carved caskets at the African Burial Ground during a 2003 reinternment ceremony — reburying the remains of African slaves after a historical study at Howard University. (Stephen Chernin / Getty Images)

Apparently, there is no rest for the thousands buried at the African Burial Ground National Monument in lower Manhattan. Last year, offensive graffiti suggesting African-Americans should be killed defaced the site.

When the burial ground was discovered — or rediscovered — in 1991 during excavation for construction of a federal office building, it became the focus of controversy and debate.

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For hundreds of black activists, the excavation was the desecration of a gravesite holding the remains of more than 419 men, women and children of African descent — most of them enslaved — who were buried in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Formerly called the Negros Burial Ground, the site’s fate was hotly debated, with black scholars and activists demanding that construction be halted and the sacred burial grounds preserved.

To assuage the growing discontent, Michael Blakey, a noted physical anthropologist, was retained to lead a team of Howard University scientists who did forensic examinations of the fossilized remains. They were mainly concerned about the cultural background and origins of the people buried there, including their possible links to known resistance to enslavement at the time. In 1993, the 6.6-acre site at Duane and Elk Sts., near 290 Broadway — with the remains reinterred — was designated a National Historic Landmark, and by 2006, it was named a National Monument.

In addition to highlighting the history of the burial ground, the National Monument designation includes documents, clippings, photographs and vivid accounts of racial and racist incidents, all of which provide more evidence of the significant African-American presence in the city’s evolution — and the extent to which slavery was a vital element in its growth and development.

It is not widely known that New York City at one time had more African-Americans in captivity than some major cities in the South, and that it was the site of at least two major slave insurrections. These and other turbulent time periods in the city’s history, including the Draft Riots of 1863, are extensively chronicled in the monument’s collection.

Over the years, the site has grown exponentially, with a wide variety of artifacts and displays in its interactive visitor center — including an impressive outdoor memorial designed by architect Rodney Leon, replete with symbolic African images; an attractive gallery; a 40-seat theater, a gift shop and bookstore.

It now offers U.S. Parks Ranger-led tours that have attracted millions of residents and tourists from all over the world. Each year, programs are presented at the site, particularly during celebrations of Kwanzaa, Black History Month and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.

As with visits to any of the country’s national monuments, you should plan ahead, noting the hours of operation and other information about the site. The African Burial Ground website provides a calendar of events. You are guaranteed to find educational information about the history and role of black Americans in New York City. Patrons of the visitor center are allowed to take photos and videos in exhibit area, but a permit is required to take commercial photos and videos, and for special events. For information, call (212) 238-4360 and visit www.nps.gov/afb.

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