New York honors its African past

Reading time 5 min.

Angelou, the renowned American writer and poet, spoke of the enslavement and mistreatment of Africans during the colonial and early statehood periods of present-day New York City during a special ceremony at a site that became the African Burial Ground National Monument. Her words now hang on the rafters of a new visitor center at the monument in downtown New York. Opened in February, the center presents a panorama of black people’s lives on Manhattan Island, the original settlement of New York City, in the 17th and 18th centuries.

“You may bury me in the bottom of Manhattan. I will rise. My people will get me. I will rise out of the huts of history’s shame.”Maya Angelou, 2003

In New York, as in other settlements, enslaved Africans clung to cultural traditions and community rituals, including burial of their dead. The Dutch and subsequent British colonial governments in New York did not allow Africans, free or enslaved, to be buried within the city limits; therefore, Africans and their descendants used a 6.6-acre (2.7-hectare) plot outside the northern boundary of the original settlement. From 1626 through 1794, Africans gathered to honor and mourn their loved ones at the original “Negros Buriel Ground,” as it was labeled on a 1755 map.

Upon closure of the burial ground in 1794, speculators divided the land into lots for sale. So began hundreds of years of city expansion and construction on the sacred ground.

In 1991, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) discovered and removed 419 graves as it excavated to build a new federal building. Responding to community concerns about respecting the burial area and commemorating the lives of those buried there, GSA halted construction on the project so it could rearrange the architectural plans to create a remembrance space outside the new building.

The U.S. National Park Service manages the outdoor burial ground memorial, proclaimed a national monument in February 2006, and the new visitor center, located in the lobby of the now-completed federal building. The visitor center and burial ground monument celebrate African traditions and provide a place to pay homage to those laid to rest there.

Confronting A Troubling Past

The Africans buried at the site include former slaves from Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Mozambique, Madagascar and other countries, as well as those who were free. According to the New York Historical Society, enslaved Africans made up 20 percent of the population of colonial New York, with 41 percent of the city’s households owning slaves.

New York once housed the second-largest slave market in the United States, a fact that researchers try to emphasize when explaining the history to visitors and schoolchildren who come to the center on organized trips. Residents in each of the original 13 American colonies owned slaves; Northern states turned away from slavery before the Southern states did, but New York in the 1770s was considered a focal point of slavery in the American colonies.

“A lot of people thought slavery existed only in the South. They are very surprised to hear it was in the North, too,” said Jordan Wright, a National Park Service ranger at the burial ground, in an interview.

Indeed, the visitor center and burial monument have opened the eyes of those who come. According to Wright, approximately 140 people pass through the visitor center each day, while the outdoor memorial draws 180 to 200 people daily. Students Christopher Chambers, Alexandria Norton and David Briggins — all 12 years old — visited on a 2010 field trip organized by their Queens, New York, middle school.

“We’re learning our history,” Norton said in an interview. “It’s pretty sad that for so long they built on top of these people,” she continued.

Despite their dismay at the reality of their city’s involvement in slavery, the students agreed in unison that the museum’s exhibit was “pretty cool,” in that it gave them a sense of the reality of the African ancestors’ lives.

At the center of the museum stands a lifelike model of a burial ceremony. Sounds of a graveside ceremony play in the background — the shovel breaking the ground, wind blowing, birds calling and insects buzzing around the gatherers. A woman’s voice leads the group in a chant to honor the deceased. According to the museum description, the ceremony is meant to integrate traditions from African homelands and new adoptions of Western culture.

Displays surrounding the funeral scene detail Africans’ lives in New York, from the forced voyage on slave ships, to the harsh labor suffered by dockworkers, to childhood malnourishment and disease, to rebellion in the face of oppressive laws. The exhibit also notes a part of the legacy enslaved Africans left on the city: the Dutch used slave labor to build a wall to barricade their settlement from British attack — a wall that the British, upon capturing the Dutch territory, tore down. Today, that area is known as Wall Street, New York’s financial center.

Honoring New York’s African Ancestors

Excavation of the burial ground site revealed the dignified ceremonies with which the African community buried their loved ones. Individual coffins were buried with the head pointed west, so that the deceased would face east when arising in the afterlife, according to a museum brochure. Inside several coffins lay objects such as buttons, jewelry and shells, which helped archaeologists learn about the culture and traditions of the city’s African population.

Since the graves were discovered, hundreds of descendants of the deceased, as well as community members, have gone to the site to pour libation, a sacred practice in certain African societies. To honor the dead, visitors pour liquid on the ground, symbolically offering the ancestors the first taste of drink as a sign of gratitude and request for guidance.

The October 2003 re-interment ceremony, where Angelou spoke, marked the return of the remains removed in 1991 to graves close to their original sites. Seven raised mounds of earth adjacent to the outdoor memorial now indicate the locations of seven crypts, in which all coffins were laid with heads pointing west.

Prior to their return to their resting places, the remains had spent seven years at Howard University in Washington, where anthropologists examined them, noting in their reports signs of skeletal damage resulting from strenuous labor and malnutrition. Some remains also retained signs of African heritage, such as filed teeth. For the re-interment, GSA commissioned coffins from artists in Accra and Aburi, Ghana, made of wood and carved with figurative designs and symbols of the Akan people of West Africa.

Anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 more Africans are buried below lower Manhattan, according to the New York Times.

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