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The African Burial Ground

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African American History in New York City

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A. Context and Significance of the Site

African American history in New York City began in the Dutch colonies. The first Africans arrived in New Amsterdam as enslaved men in 1625 and 1626; the first enslaved women in 1628. They worked as farmers and builders and in the fur trade of the Dutch West India Company. Some helped build the wall intended to keep settlers safe from the native population at the location of today's Wall Street.

In 1644, the Company granted "conditional freedom" to the enslaved on condition that they make an annual fixed payment of farm produce. The children of the "conditionally freed" people, born and unborn, remained the property of the Company. Most of the families received grants to lands they had been farming before becoming "free." At the time the area was generally undesirable swamp land. Today most of the area is in Greenwich Village.

The Dutch continued to expand and to import enslaved Africans to meet growing labor needs. Between 1649 and 1659 they imported hundreds of men, women and children. In New Amsterdam, the first sales tax, an import tax of 10%, was imposed to discourage merchants from selling "human cargo" outside of the colony.

Though not comprehensive, Dutch records do note that there were Africans who had never been enslaved who were living on the "free Negro lots" which today are located on land between from Astor Place and Prince Street.

In 1665, the Dutch surrendered New Amsterdam/New Netherlands to the British. For most European settlers, little changed in what became New York. For African New Yorkers, both enslaved and freed, British occupation meant severe change. Under Dutch rule, some Africans had gained half or full freedom. Even if enslaved, they had legal and social rights. One example is that no master could whip an enslaved African without the permission of the Dutch Common Council. This and other rules changed under the British rule.

In a move toward commercial efficiency, the British formed the Royal African Company to import slaves directly from Africa to New York. "From the start of the English occupation the creation of a commercially profitable slave system became a joint project of both government and private interests. Unlike the Dutch West India Company which used slavery to implement colonial policy, the Royal African Company used the colony to implement slavery." (Historian Edgar J. McManus)

New York's first slave market during the British period was established at Wall Street and the East River in 1709. In the early 1700's there were 800 African men, women, and children in the city; about 15% of the total population. Local and state documents did not distinguish between free and enslaved Africans until 1756. Before then the term "slave" was used to describe all Africans and their decedents. They were all looked upon as valuable sources of labor.

The British enacted numerous laws that restricted where Africans could be employed and how they could be freed. Laws were passed to prevent free Africans from aiding runaway slaves. The New York "Slave Codes" grew so numerous that they are seen as a major cause of the 1712 slave revolt. In the revolt, enslaved Africans and natives gathered in an orchard on Maiden Lane with hatchets, guns, knives, and hoes and set out to burn and destroy property in the area. Nine whites were killed during the revolt. Twenty-one enslaved Africans were executed and six were reported to have committed suicide. After the revolt more laws were passed that prohibited Africans and natives from carrying weapons and entering military service. There were strict curfews and laws against gathering of more than two or three enslaved people. The revolt emphasized the growing fear that European New Yorkers had of the growing African population.

At this time, Europeans in New York outnumbered people of African descent five to one, but the city contained the largest absolute number of enslaved Africans of any English colonial settlement except Charleston, South Carolina, and held the largest proportion of enslaved Africans of any northern settlement. By the first decade of the 1700's, forty percent of New York's households contained at least one enslaved African; again, the largest proportion of any northern settlement.

Africans were active in the American Revolution. Among the first locals to show their defiance and the first casualty of the Boston Massacre of 1770 was Chrispus Attucks, a black man. It has been said that the American Revolution allowed the black man "... his opportunity to fight in a war that would enable him to exercise his abilities and strengths as a free man." The British also made use of Africans to fill their ranks. One example being Benjamin Whitecuff, "a Hempstead negro," who served as a spy and as a sailor in the Royal Navy.

The Battle of Long Island, which took place in Brooklyn resulted in 10,000 British soldiers marching west through Bedford, outflanking the Americans and inflicting heavy casualties. The many lives lost included those of black members of the local militia. Numerous other examples can be cited. Of special note is a black man, James Armistead Lafayette, who was commended by the Marquis de Lafayette for his distinguished war record in 1784.

After the Revolution, equality came for some at different rates for different people in different parts of the country. In late 1807 the federal government passed a law prohibiting the importation and/or sale of slaves within the United States and its territories. Many social and economic factors contributed to the demise of slavery in the north but it was not forgotten. Until 1850 it was still legal to move existing slaves from and to anywhere within the national boundaries. Throughout the first half of the century, ships dealing in the slave trade could be seen being repaired and fitted out in New York harbors. It was not until the 1860's that the ultimate test came as to whether "... this nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure."

The old suspicions related to the earliest slave revolt clarify lessons that we are still learning. Perhaps one of the most important is that Africans did not merely turn into black Europeans when they arrived on this continent. African culture and traditions were kept alive consciously for generations. Some of the particulars were lost along the way but much that is African did not die in later times. African Americans have a long and proud story to tell in the history of this country and a unique cultural heritage. That heritage, in turn, shaped, contributed to, and added color to a larger culture that is uniquely American.

The African Burial Ground National Historic Landmark

(1) Introduction:

Although Africans were a vital part of society from the earliest colonial times, there are few landmarks in New York City that recognize their presence. They helped build the city but no statues or other monuments were built in their honor. No streets, squares, buildings or rivers have names with origins in their culture. Distinctly African landmarks and physical remains are scarce and scattered where they exist at all. The Burial Ground is significant because, in the midst of lower Manhattan, there exists the remains of an African culture stretching back to over 350 years.

The Site:

The site description filed with the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission states:

"Throughout the eighteenth century, New York's free and enslaved Africans buried their dead in a parcel of land which now is part of the city's civic center area. ..... The total area is approximately seven acres..... The site is currently characterized by a nineteenth- and twentieth-century built environment including buildings, a construction site, parking areas, and city streets, under which a large portion of the African Burial Ground is preserved. The site's preservation in this area was due to sixteen to twenty-five feet of fill which has protected the original ground surface and an intact stratum of burials. The basements of buildings subsequently erected on the site penetrated only the fill, except on the lots on Broadway where the original ground surface was higher."

The area of the African Burial Ground was known and used as part of New York's "common" land until the late eighteenth century. Africans used land for a burial place that was then remote from the colonial town by virtue of its location in a low-lying area between hills, as well as in actual distance. The date of its initial use is not known. The earliest document that mentions the ground is from 1712/13. In it, a military chaplain wrote that "Negroes" were being buried in the Common by "those of their country." The "common" land stretched to the north of the eighteenth-century town, beginning at the southern end of the present City Hall Park. It is known that the twenty one Africans executed after the 1712 slave revolt were buried in that area.

The exact location is not known, but a clue is offered in a 1722 law prohibiting night funerals of slaves "south of the Collect Pond." By 1732 a piece of ground north of the city and just south of the Collect Pond had been labeled as the "Negro Burying Place" on a map of the city. In 1741, thirteen African men were burned at the stake and seventeen hanged because of conspiracy against the crown. The judge's records indicate that the executions took place between two collect ponds, evidence indicates subsequent burials in the nearby African Burial Ground.

The African Burial Ground is clearly labeled on an official 1755 plan of New York. It is shown north of the palisade, thus just outside the growing town. The British Headquarters Map of New York dating to about 1782 shows a burial ground immediately north of the Revolutionary War barracks.

A 1785 survey of the area was made for the purpose of dividing property into blocks and lots for sale and subsequent development. The land involved was shown as being bounded on the south by the "Negros Burial Ground." The burial area itself occupied land that was part of a patent belonging to a local European family which dated back to 1673. In 1795, family heirs exchanged this land for city lots further to the east. This marked the end of the area as a burial place. The land was soon subdivided and houses were constructed on lots immediately after each survey was completed. In 1796, the Common Council arranged to acquire part of the "Negros Burial Ground" for laying out Chambers Street east of Broadway.

By 1812, the area including the "African burying ground", was reported to have developed from "uninviting suburbs" to a place "covered with a flourishing population, and elegant improvements." Fortunately for the preservation of the burial ground most "improvements" were made at ground level, on the rubble of earlier structures or on fill that was purposely brought in for construction. Some areas saw very little disturbance. It was not until the modern towers of New York began to be built that deep foundation footings were required for stability.

Note: Information included in this background was obtained from the following sources:

C. REFERENCES

Barbour, Warren T. D. "Musings on a Dream Deferred." Federal Archeology Report 7, no. 1. U.S. Department of Interior: National Park Service Archeologist/Archeological Assistance Division, Spring 1994.

Boakyewa, Ama Badu, and Marie-Alice Devieux. "New Views from Old Voices." Update, Newsletter of the African Burial Ground & Five Points Archaeological Projects 1, no. 5. New York: Office of Public Education and Interpretation of the African Burial Ground, Fall 1994. Federal Steering Committee for the African Burial Ground. Memorialization of The African Burial Ground: {Final} Recommendations to the General Services Administration and The United States Congress. Prepared by Peggy King Jorde, Executive Director. New York (52 Chambers Street): Federal Steering Committee, August 1993.

General Services Administration, Region 2. Research Design for Archeological, Historical, and Bioanthropological Investigations of the African Burial Ground (Broadway Block), New York, New York. Prepared by Howard University and John Milner Associates, West Chester, Pennsylvania, Washington: General Services Administration, December 1993.

U.S. Department of Interior. "African Burial Ground National Historic Landmark Study." U.S. Department of Interior: National Park Service History Division, n.d.

Wilson, Sherrill D., Ph.D. "African American Beginnings in Old New York." Parts 1, 2, & 3. Update, Newsletter of the African Burial Ground & Five Points Archaeological Projects 1, nos. 5-7. New York: Office of Public Education and Interpretation of the African Burial Ground (Fall 1994, Winter 1995, and Spring 1996).

II. The Foley Square Construction Project

A. Milestones

1987 - The General Services Administration (GSA) began planning to provide greater office space for Federal agencies and to provide additional courtrooms and support space for the adjacent U.S. courthouse located in the Civic Center-Foley Square area of lower Manhattan. The site proposed was between Broadway, Duane, Elk and Reade streets.

1989 - Before construction could begin, compliance with a number of laws was required. Most important was Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. It states that, before receiving funding for construction, federal agencies must determine if the proposed site merits inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. GSA was also required to consult with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and a Memorandum of Agreement was signed between the two parties in 1989.

1991 - The Memorandum of Agreement was amended and signed by GSA, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

June 1991 - Human remains were discovered during archaeological testing and by October full-scale excavation for the construction of the Foley Square Project federal building had begun.

1992 - the Mayor of New York formed the Mayor’s Task Force on the African Burial Ground. Members of this Task Force later formed the basis of the Federal Steering Committee.

July 1992 - at least 390 burials had been removed. In response to a letter from Mayor Dinkins, GSA stated that they intended to excavate an additional 200 burials on a portion of the site that was to become a four story pavilion beside the office building.

Also in July 1992, Congressman Augustus Savage, Chairman of the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Buildings and Grounds informed GSA that no further projects would be funded until he had personally met with the GSA Administrator to review issues concerning this project.

Later in July 1992 and immediately thereafter, meetings were held with GSA, members of congress and city agencies. It was agreed that "… a Federal advisory committee of primarily descendant African community leaders and professionals be established to make recommendations to GSA with regard to its Section 106 responsibilities at the site."

October 1992- The Federal Steering Committee was chartered to represent the interests of the community and to make recommendations regarding the Burial Ground. Its mandates included: (1) the review of proposals regarding the human remains on the Pavilion site, (2) the analysis, curation and reinternment of remains removed from the African Burial Ground and (3) the construction of a memorial or other improvements on the Pavilion site.

Shortly afterwards, President Bush signed a law ordering GSA to abandon construction on the Pavilion site, and approving the appropriation of up to $3 million for modification of the Pavilion site and "appropriate" memorialization of the African Burial Ground.

To Date

  • A professional, multi-disciplinary research proposal for the site and its remains has been developed by Howard University and John Milner Associate. This is a standard archeological procedure that helps ensure that site contents are dealt with according to prevailing professional standards and not just removed to make way for something else.
  • A professional archeological excavation of the site has been done by John Milner Associate.
  • All site remains have been properly curated; fully recorded and professionally stored.
  • Physical anthropological studies are being carried out on all site remains at Howard University.
  • The previously-proposed pavilion site will, instead, be used for reburial of the remains and as a Memorial site.
  • The Office of Public Education and Interpretation was established in New York City to educate the public about the history of African Burial Ground and new knowledge gained through on-going research of the site remains. The Office also serves as the key source of public information for all activities relating to the site.
  • The African Burial Ground Interpretive Center is located in the Federal Building, 290 Broadway, New York, NY 10007

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