A Trip in Time: African Burial Ground National Monument

Last October, my wife and I were profoundly moved and sobered by a day at the African Burial Ground National Monument in lower Manhattan. I offer this report to my readers, not to politicize or create polarity, but in the spirit of remembering an important (and often unrecognized) part of this nation’s history, and to honor the indomitable human spirit endemic to each individual.

Photo of a written exhibit at the African Burial Ground National Monument containing statistics about New York's role in the slave trade.
Staggering numbers.

In an isolated part of colonial Manhattan, in what is now the center of New York City, African slaves created a dignified and sacred space to bury their dead loved ones. Restricted from Christian burial grounds within the city, the enslaved Africans developed what became a five to six-acre plot outside the city’s northern palisade. (This protective wall was later removed as the city expanded, but its legacy is found to this day in the name “Wall Street.”)

There were stringent limitations on their actions: no more than twelve people could participate in any funeral procession or graveside ceremony, venturing more than a mile from their home required a written pass, and interment at night was prohibited. The burial ground was in active use between 1650 and 1795, and upwards of 15,000 individuals were interred there.

Photo of the exhibit at the African Burial Ground National Monument depicting five mourners gathered around two coffins.
Only the smallest groups were allowed to gather in mourning.
Photo from a different angle of an exhibit at the African Burial Ground National Monument depicting five life-size mourners gathered around two coffins.
Same exhibit from a different angle.

Nieu Amsterdam was the name given to the Dutch West India Company’s colony on “Manahatta,” the Lenape word for “land of many hills.” The Dutch desired to profit from the beaver pelt trade and brought African slaves over to clear timber, farm the land, and perform other work, including protecting the colony from the constant threat of Native American incursion. Broadway, once a footpath of the indigenous peoples, was cleared and widened. The area we currently know as Wall Street was a fortification built by slave labor stretching from the East River to the Hudson River to protect the colony’s northern boundary. And current day Stone Street in Lower Manhattan was the first street in the colony to be paved with paving stones, all work being done by enslaved Africans.

The Meerschalk Plan of 1754 - the first map to denote the burial ground
The Meerschalk Plan of 1754 – the first map to denote the burial ground.

The Dutch controlled the colony until 1664 and offered the limited hope of what they termed “half-freedom” to slaves who had worked for twenty years, but once the British took over, they renamed the colony to honor the Duke of York and enacted the Duke of York Laws, which effectively eliminated any hope of freedom for these people. Legal emancipation in New York would not be available until 1827. While many today associate slavery exclusively with the South, slavery was a violent, abusive, and central part of city life in New York for two hundred years.

Photo of a wall exhibit at the African Burial Ground National Monument featuring a quote from John Jea's 1815 work "The Life, History, and Unparalleled Sufferings of John Jea, the African Preacher." It reads, "Our Labor was extremely hard, being obligated to work in the summer form about two o'clock in the morning, till abut ten or eleven o'clock at night, and in the winter from four in the morning, till ten at night. The horses usually rested about five hours in the day, while we were at work; thus did the beasts enjoy greater privileges than we did."
The moving words of one man’s personal experience.

These brave, resourceful, and courageous Africans maintained their dignity and culture through secret gatherings where they shared their stories, music, faith, and traditions. They had families, buried their dead, formed friendships, and endured unthinkable atrocities.

Forgotten for over a hundred years, the African burial grounds were discovered in 1991 during the excavation of 290 Broadway for a new Government Services building. Today you can visit the African Burial Ground National Monument in Lower Manhattan, which was built to honor these Africans’ memory and contributions.

Photograph of an exhibit at the African National Burial Monument showing many photos of coffins that were respectfully studied and documented before being re-interred.
Respectful archaeological studies and documentation of the remains before re-interment.

Our trip to this important national monument served as not only a lesson in important history but as a reminder that each human life has great value and deserves to be honored. Highly recommended.

For more information, visit: https://www.nps.gov/afbg/learn/historyculture/index.htm

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