NYC's African Burial Ground Remains, Still Far From Home
by Karen Juanita Carrillo
SeeingBlack.com Contributing Writer
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The federal government's promise to reinter the remains of New
York City's first African-Americans in downtown Manhattan's African
Burial Ground by last month has come and gone, say outraged members
of the Committee of Descendants of the Afrikan Ancestral Burial
Committee members, who have been monitoring conditions at the 18th
century consecrated ground, point to an agreement, signed back in
1993 by the Government Services Administration, the federal agency
coordinating the research and maintenance of the burial ground.
The memorandum, committee members say, was a clear promise that
all work on the burial ground, including reburials, would be completed
When some 415 ancestral remains were still not reburied in 2000,
committee members began making demands upon the agency. Members
told the agency that they wanted all work finalized by August 2001.
Plans were in place for a reburial ceremony, including a week-long
videotaped celebration with speakers' forum at the Brooklyn-based
Medgar Evers College, to be paid for with $350,000 requested from
But the agency is saying that reburial can not take place because
research work is still not completed on the ancestral remains. GSA
spokeswoman, Cassandra Henderson, did not return phone calls requesting
further information on reasons for the delay, and the African Burial
Ground's director, Sheryl Wilson, was not in the office when calls
were made seeking her comment. But a GSA worker, answering a phone
query about the possibility of reburial plans, said, "I don't know
of any plans right now. There are no plans right now. There is no
direct, specific time when we plan on a reburial."
Charles Barron, a Committee of Descendants member and a candidate
for the New York City Council, was incredulous: "It's been ten years.
We're saying, 'Come on: ten years? We think that as long as these
bones remain outside of the burial ground, this is like a second
killing of our ancestors. It's been over a decade and they still
haven't buried our ancestors. Well the research is finished. It
should be finished! It should stop! We are demanding that it stop."
Contention has never died down over the unearthing of the 18th-century
African Burial Ground, which archeologists say lies underneath five
blocks of federal government-owned landwhere New York's City
Hall, the U.S. Courthouse and the state Supreme Court proudly sit
today. Although it has always been well delineated on old maps of
the city, the currently designated African Burial Ground - located
on Duane St. between Elk and Reade Sts.is said to have been
rediscovered during the construction of a federal office building
in May 1991. GSA engineers later said that they had not expected
that the burial site would still be intact after having been built
on from colonial times up though the 19th century. But as construction
for the federal building dug deep, the graves of hundreds of African
men, women, and children, both enslaved and free, were uncovered.
Most were found more than 20 feet below street level.
The African Burial Ground was used from the late 1600s until the
late 1700s. At a time when Blacks were forced to live outside of
the city's limits, which, at that time, meant just beyond the wall
that stood on Wall Street , New York City's first African Americans
were also forced to bury their dead in cemeteries where no Whites
had been buried. Downtown Manhattan's African Burial Ground is said
to contain some 20,000 skeletal remains of New York City's first
In 1992 Congress appointed a federal steering committee to fund
a $15 million project to study, memorialize, and publicize the African
Burial Ground. In D.C., Howard University's bioanthropologist, Dr.
Michael Blakey, was appointed scientific director of the research
branch of the project. But Blakey, himself, has at times been a
vocal critic of the GSA and its policies, calling the agency's menial
funding of the traditionally Black colleges' researchers a disgrace.
"Apart from being reminiscent of the conditions under which our
ancestors worked, it is simply impossible to do this kind of science
without any resources at all," Blakey wrote at one point.
After being analyzed, the skeletal remains were supposed to be
reinterred during formal ceremonies at the burial site. But because
the remains are still in a Howard University laboratory"sitting
on a shelf," according to Committee of Descendants membersceremonial
reinternment plans have, yet again, been put off.
"There is a big battle as to who has authority over these remains,"
Barron said. "According to the law, the GSA illegally removed the
bones in the first place. Just because they own the land, it doesn't
give them authority to remove the bones. That doesn't give them
ownership and authority over the bones. That's like, God forbid
one of your parent's dies and you bury them. Someone else than comes
along and says they have eminent domain over the land. Do they then
own the remains of your parents because they own the land?
"We are calling on the GSA to fulfill their legal responsibility
to rebury those bones," Barron said. "They should return those bones
to us, the descendants of the ancestors. They will not continue
to disrespect our people."
Members of the Committee of Descendants of the Afrikan Ancestral
Burial Ground say they plan on meeting with congressional representatives,
including Major Owens, Ed Towns and Charlie Rangel, and joining
forces with attorneys to bring a legal case against the federal
government if a reburial date is not announced soon.
So far, the only stated federal government plans for the African
Burial Ground include having it recognized as a world heritage site.
As part of its continued protest against having issues of African
slavery mentioned during the upcoming United Nations World Conference
Against Racism, the U.S. government has issued statements promising
that there will be a museum and dedication of recognition for the
African Burial Ground. "We believe it important to find appropriate
ways of honoring and paying tribute to the legacy of the enslaved,"
the State Department has said, "both in terms of what they and their
families endured and their important role in helping to build many
of the countries of the world today.
"In this connection, we note that there are serious moves afoot
in the United States today to create the first national museum devoted
exclusively to the history and culture of Africans and African Americans,
and also to nominate New York City's African Burial Groundwhich
holds the remains of over 20,000 enslaved from the 1600-1700sto
the world heritage list.
But Committee of Descendants members say current treatment of the
African Ancestral Burial Ground is a direct reflection of the way
Blacks are treated today in the United States. And they will begin
legal procedures to push for such treatment to end.
-- September 10, 2001
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