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Breaking Ground, Breaking Silence by Joyce Hansen and Gary McGowan tells the story of New York City's African Burial Ground.

NYC's African Burial Ground Remains, Still Far From Home

by Karen Juanita Carrillo 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 Ground.

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 by 1999.

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 the government.

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 land—where 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 African-Americans.

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 members—ceremonial 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 Ground—which holds the remains of over 20,000 enslaved from the 1600-1700s—to 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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