African burial ground under New York streets

A clumsy, chain-link fence encloses a seemingly insignificant patch of grass amid the stone faades of Manhattan's courthouses and government buildings. But for many, this is sacred ground.

It is an African burial ground. The plot of land is just a sliver of the 18th-century cemetery now known to lie under five city blocks surrounded by New York's City Hall and the US Courthouse and State Supreme Court. And for almost a decade, this site has also been a battleground between the African-American community and the Federal government, the owner of much of this land.

Many consider this burial ground to be one of the nation's most significant archaeological finds this century. And, since its rediscovery during the construction of a Federal office building, many African-Americans have seen it as an important part of their cultural heritage.

"You could call it our Plymouth Rock or Jamestown," says Michael Blakey, scientific director of the federally funded project to study the site. He is also one of the most vocal critics of the General Services Administration (GSA), the government agency that oversees the $15 million project. Other African-American burial sites in Texas and Washington, D.C., face similar conflicts as local communities try to prevent development on the land.

More than 200 years ago, before the Revolutionary War, this area on the outskirts of Colonial New York was the final resting place for more than 20,000 African men, women, and children, both slave and free. Over the years, it was forgotten.

Studies of the site have brought many surprises. It was not previously known that there was such a significant African presence in New York and that virtually all were enslaved. "We have a standard mythology in this country of a slaveholding South and a freedom-loving North," says Dr. Blakey. "It's not generally understood that 40 percent of the original Dutch colony and up to 20 percent of the English colony were enslaved Africans." The burial ground provides the earliest and largest Colonial population available for study, he explains.

The burial ground was surprisingly well preserved since it was covered by landfill through decades of construction. According to the GSA, the area had been uneven and hilly in Colonial times, so engineers, probably in the 19th century, attempted to make the land level. When the graves were rediscovered in May 1991, most were found 20 feet below street level.

It was only after Congress appointed a Federal steering committee in 1992 that plans were made to fund a project to study, memorialize, and publicize the find. Still, many in the community feel uncomfortable that GSA, the agency that administers all Federal property, has final say over a project considered so sacred to African-Americans.

"We know it's a government project, but it is really about making it our own," says Peggy King Jorde, a consultant to GSA and the executive director of the project's Memorialization Office.

"African-Americans want to bury their own, and it is dehumanizing for Euro-Americans to assume the right to do this," Blakey says. He also accuses the agency of reneging on its agreement to fund DNA and chemical analysis of the 427 human remains taken from the site.

The agency counters that all three parts of the project are led by members of the descendant community and that more than $9 million of the funding has gone to these three African-American consultants.

Despite the controversy, the project has been a major historical and archaeological find. "The history of the burial ground ends where the history of our country begins," says Warren Barbour, the first African-American to receive a PhD in archaeology. "And it shows us that we had a presence in the New World, that we contributed to the building of this country. This is not just slave quarters or a plantation site; it tells us about our heritage."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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