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    « BACK to David McKenzie's portfolio

    Posted 03.31.03
    African Burial Ground

    A line of people stretched round the block at the shiny 30-story building on 290 Broadway. Some in the line fingered manila envelopes, a few seemed nervous. I was there to visit the museum of the African Burial Ground. A red dot on a tourist map was my guide. I walked to the front of the line and told the guard why I was there. "Are you on official IRS business?" he asked. "No, I want to see the African burial ground museum.". He looked at me with the bored disdain New Yorkers save for tourists, "You are not on official IRS business and there is no museum."

    The existence of an African Burial Ground in the New York is a surprise to many, although on any given morning hundreds of businessmen, federal workers and court officials walk right past it. Then again, the 200 square foot patch of grass with a chicken-wire fence is not much to look at. If they took the time to read the small signs behind the fence, the lot might seem more significant. "This enclosed area is a preserved part of the original African Burial Ground," reads one. "20,000 or more men, women and children were buried in the original cemetery."

    To most foreigners, like myself, and to many Americans, slavery is remembered as a strictly Southern institution. You never hear of slaves jumping on the underground railway to Mississippi. And yet, tens of thousands of slaves lie buried in lower Manhattan in an enormous mass grave. The cemetery originally covered over four acres, including the area where the courthouse, City Hall, the INS building stand today.

    In 1991 the Government Services Administration (GSA) broke ground for a new 30 story federal building. Before building began, the agency brought in archeologists to assess the area's historical importance. In the initial packet, they included a copy of an 18th century map with the words 'Negro Burial Ground' written in an attractive script, right where the new building was set to rise. For much of the 1700s it consisted of swamps, hills and the mass grave. But Lower Manhattan eventually expanded northward, employing slaves and laborers to raise the hills and fill in the swamps. Building commenced, they believed there would be nothing left of significance.

    The map was uncannily accurate about the cemetery, even after 2 and a half centuries. Soon after breaking ground of the federal building, crews started to unearth human skeletons. Many of them were in almost perfect condition. The find comprised the first mass slave grave discovered in the North East. The GSA was went ahead with the construction. It would eventually take pressure from Mayor David Dinkins, community protests and a congressional injunction to delay construction and remove the bones for study. The design of the building was changed; a 200 square foot patch was saved to rebury the skeletons. Ten years ago, politicians and civic groups started to talk about a suitable memorial.


    Frustrated in my bumbling attempt to see a non-existent museum, I went to see these bones, or at least, pictures of them at the American Natural History museum. The event was called, somewhat paradoxically, 'hot topics in culture and science.'

    "Here we see an example of Osteophytosis, it is the result of persistent strain on the neck and head," says Dr. Michael Blakey, the head of the African Burial Ground research team at Howard University. He stands upright with shortly cropped hair, a fashionable goatee and a midnight blue suit. Blakey hits the slide button. "Burial 101." he says in a quietly firm voice, "he looked like more like a people from West Africa, most closely those from the Gold Coast."

    He the next slide, which is a close up of teeth. It shows the bottom jaw and incisors of 101, each tooth is at least a foot long on the screen. "He has slightly filed teeth. Those with filed teeth most certainly came to New York from Africa." Filed teeth are culturally West African, a practice that went out of fashion in the middle of the last century. African cultural practices were prohibited in slaves, so it is a safe assumption that only those who reached adolescence in Africa would have filed teeth, he explains.
    The slides continue. Click. A woman with a musket ball in her ribcage. Click. A mother buried with her child. Click. A man with buckled femurs. "The presence of Africans have been left out of our story," says Blakey, "The economy of the North, like the South, depended on the trade of human cargo."

    Blakey lobbied hard to become head of the African Burial Ground project. He is well known as an anthropologist with an activist streak. The bones were removed from the site and moved to Howard University in Washington, which was a coup for Blakey. Some believed that the bones should be studied in the city; most agreed that it made sense to send slave remains to the prestigious black college. At Howard, Blakey's team cleaned, measured and cataloged 427 slave remains.

    In person, Dr Blakey is quieter than I had expected. A Few months earlier he practically shouted down the phone when I called with a few simple questions about the progress of the archeological work on the burial ground . "The GSA has put a gun to our head," he screamed at me, "they are trying to make us create brick without straw!"

    The GSA and Blakey have been at loggerheads since 1991. The GAS wants him to do the minimum amount of research, while he wants to take advantage of this extraordinary find. According to Blakey, the government study would result in little more information than, 'Negro Male, 35, abnormally enlarged muscle points from manual labor.' Instead, Blakey has recruited a veritable army of researchers. He employs archeologists to assess the artifacts, forensic anthropologists to measure and interpret the bones, historians to verify findings and even sociologists and Africanists to understand the links between the remains and contemporary African societies (such as the teeth).

    All this takes time, and Howard has been criticized for the delay. And the process, even by academic standards, has taken a long time. After 12 years, there is still no final report. And without a report there can be no museum.


    Now the center of global finance, lower Manhattan was once the center of the region's slave trade. Slaves built the wall of Wall Street to prevent Native American sorties. Merchants traded their human wares at the site of the New York Stock Exchange. Townspeople of New Amsterdam and New York could open the broadsheets and pick out slaves in the daily classifieds.

    The expansion of the colony meant more labor needs. The Dutch struggled to entice European farmers, laborers and semi-skilled workers to America. Even free land and seed couldn't get many over from Europe. So they brought slaves instead. During Dutch rule some slaves were granted freedom and even given land to farm, all be it partially to create a buffer against Native American attack (Bowery street of today was the site of a number of farms with black ownership).

    In the early years of New Amsterdam slaves arrived mainly as 'residual goods.' Managers sent their 'unruly' slaves from the Caribbean, pirates stripped slave ships of their human cargo and sold the slaves in town. Occasionally settlers brought slaves with them to the New World.

    When the British anchored their warships in New Amsterdam in 1798 slavery became the cornerstone of the economy. The small gains of basic rights were all but rescinded and by the start of the revolutionary war, New York had the largest slave population in North America, second only to Charleston, South Carolina.

    The island of Manhattan had only minor need for slaves to work farms. In the South slaves largely picked cotton, tobacco and other cash crops, in the Caribbean, they mostly hacked and processed sugar cane. But Manhattan had no large-scale cash crops. Slaves often lived in the same house as their owners and worked on a myriad of urban tasks. Perhaps where the legend of a benign Northern slavery grew from. But northern slavery was anything but benign. Though some slaves worked in skilled crafts such as tailoring and sail making, the majority did manual labor. The research at the African burial ground has shown that many slaves were literally worked to death.


    I finally got into the building at 290 Broadway. The Office of Public Information Education and Interpretation (OPEI) was having a film festival. The OPEI has worked to keep people informed about the progress of the burial ground. I rode up in the gilded elevators all the way to the 30th floor. In a conference room about a dozen people watched a documentary about the site.

    During one of the question and answer sessions a woman wearing a blue floral West African dress stood up abruptly from her seat, "New York is ours," she said emphatically. Some audience members shifted in their seats, but a few nodded, "The whole thing is about reparations, I learnt this from the African Burial Ground, we built New York," she pauses, and adds as an afterthought, "that is not to say Europeans didn't help."

    The past injustice of slavery has become a rallying cry of the present. The campaign for reparations, once laughed at by the political establishment, is gaining momentum. In New York, the African Burial Ground has become a catalyst for the movement.

    Councilman Charles Barron's office is a few blocks from the Burial Ground. In addition to his city council duties, Barron is one of the leaders of a group called The Committee of the Descendants of the African Burial Ground. Due partly to pressure from his and other groups, the bones were set to be reburied in August 2001. Fresh graves were dug; mahogany caskets ordered especially from Ghana. Then, like it often seemed to happen with the African Burial Ground, nothing happened.
    Barron is angry about the burial ground. He leans over a round table in his sparse office and points at me, his collarless suit and round face unruffled, "We demand that our ancestors be reburied," he says, a painting of Malcolm X behind his left shoulder, He believes that the bones should not have been disturbed at all, but admits that the research has been important.

    The research is helping one of Barron's chief goals, reparations. He explicitly referred to the burial ground in a recent city council bill to explore the issue. "We cleared the forests, we were traded on the stock exchange," says Barron, speaking as if addressing a crowd, "if you can inherit the wealth, you also inherit the debt and you owe us something." Barron frequently interchanges the past and present tense, and like many calling for reparations he uses 'we' when referring to slaves rather than 'they' and uses 'you' when talking of slave owners, instead of 'them'. It is an important distinction, and one at the heart of the reparations movement. Essentially Barron and others say that the income gap in the US between black and white is due to slavery. Supporters of reparations say that the labor and wrongs of Slavery should be considered a debt that Americans, more specifically white Americans, need to pay.

    The idea of reparations for African Americans is not new. At the end of the Civil War General Sherman promised slaves forty acres of land and a mule for their suffering, but President Andrew Johnson threw out the idea. Since 1993, Representative Conyers has introduced a reparations bill every year in congress. It has never been voted on.

    A number of events have rekindled the reparations movement. Two groups of high profile cases have set a precedent for tort based reparations litigation. Jewish survivors of the holocaust have already settled with a selection of European companies and banks to the amount of $6 billion. Japanese Americans effectively settled with the US government for their internment during the second world war. And the continued expansion of class action lawsuits have served as a jumping off point. In the present legal climate companies will often prefer to settle massive lawsuits than face a trial that airs their dirty laundry. There is already a class action suit in New York State against companies that allegedly profited from slavery. Though companies are being targeted for legal action, reparations activists ultimately see the government writing the check.

    Critics of the plan say reparations would do more damage than good. From a legal standpoint they argue that the wrongs of slavery are way past the statute of limitations. And from a community standpoint many think that reparations would create more division between black and white in America.


    Twelve years after the graves were discovered, there is no sign of a museum being built. The museum's designer is understandably frustrated, "GSA and Howard have been talking," says Professor Williams Myers over the phone from SUNY New Paltz, where he teaches African studies, "We are just stuck here in New York getting older."

    Professor Myers invited me to come to the New Paltz campus. Two weeks later, he meets me at the bus station, wearing a dark green suede jacket and a woolen cap. He has a distinctly vibrant and un-academic air about him. "We want to tell their story," Myers tells me over a noisy pub lunch on the small main street, "it is the story of the transition between African and African American." He wants the museum to have interactive displays, tours and a memorial. Myers believes that the traditional story of slavery is essentially just that, a story. He feels that a museum would help to retell the story of slavery in New York.

    The museum is a culmination of his work, although he hasn't had an update for months on end. "This is the ghetto," he says with a smile, pointing at his offices-a single story prefabricated building at the back of the campus, "They said we might be here for a year or two. It has been ten." Without the data from Howard Myers and his team cannot proceed with plans for the museum. " There has been so much controversy," the professor sighs, with the drone of heating above, "but this is not about Africans, or African Americans, it is for all Americans."

    At the professor's suggestion, I take a walk down the main street of New Paltz. I pass an old man napping on a bench with a baseball cap and plaid shirt-yellow leaves fall around him. Near him a small sign marks the towns founding, in 1678 by 'French Huguenots, refugees from France.' I walk to the Wallkill River, tributary of the Hudson. Across the iron bridge are expanses of corn and wheat. These colonists fleeing religious persecution brought their slaves. They ploughed the fields and gathered the crop, here in the North Eastern farms. New York was the last state to abolishing slavery in the North East. Perhaps the professor was right, perhaps the colonists of New York got used to the idea of owning people. He laments more about our collective amnesia.