Unearthing New York's Forgotten Slavery Era In 1991, construction workers in lower Manhattan stumbled upon a gravesite for enslaved Africans and unearthed a forgotten part of New York's past. Africans and people of African descent made up twenty percent of the population in colonial New York. Almost all were enslaved. Now, a National Monument in Manhattan has recently been built to honor them.
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Unearthing New York's Forgotten Slavery Era

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Unearthing New York's Forgotten Slavery Era

Unearthing New York's Forgotten Slavery Era

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From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Bones can tell you a lot about someone who's passed on - their age and height, whether they were a man or a woman, if they died violently or from disease. Bones can also illuminate our history.

In 1991, construction workers in Lower Manhattan stumbled upon a gravesite for enslaved Africans. They were trying to dig a foundation for a new federal building. But they found a forgotten part of New York's past.

Africans and people of African descent made up 20 percent of the population in colonial New York. Almost all were enslaved. The bones from New York's African Burial Ground tell their story.

Sixteen years later, that story is immortalized. There's now a national monument on the site where the federal building would have been.

Now, we have to two people who made the monument a reality. Howard Dodson, secretary of the African Burial Ground Monument Foundation. He's also the chief of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. And Michael Blakey - he was the scientific director for the African Burial Ground Project from 1994 to 2004. He's now a professor and director of the Institute for Historical Biology at the College of William & Mary. Welcome to both of you.

Dr. HOWARD DODSON (Secretary, African Burial Ground Monument Foundation; Chief, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture):Pleasure to be with you.

CHIDEYA: So, Howard, when was this idea of the monument conceived and how?

Dr. DODSON: Well, when the bones were, in fact, first discovered, the mayor of the city of New York at that time, Mayor David Dinkins, put together his - we had to put together his advisory committee to advice him on what should be done. And we did that, and he made recommendations to GSA, which was the government agency doing the building.

And in federal lingo, only official federal bodies can advice government agencies on things, so they established something called the Federal Steering Committee on the African Burial Ground, and I was asked to chair that. And its specific duties and responsibilities was to put together a memorialization plan, which included what was to be done with the ancestory remains that have been excavated from the site, as well as what kinds of ways should the ancestors who were there be honored and commemorated. And among the recommendations we made was the creation of this kind of a memorial monument to the ancestors.

CHIDEYA: Michael, I want you to take us into some specifics. There is Burial Site 25. There's issues like carbon dating and things that identify the bones. But tell us about Burial Site 25 and who we might find there.

Dr. MICHAEL BLAKEY (Professor and Director, Institute for Historical Biology, College of William and & Mary): Well, Burial Number 25 is a young woman in her early 20s who had been shot and beaten to death. That's very clear in having found - the excavators having found a musket ball lodged in her thoracic area. In laboratory analysis, we found fractures of her face resulting from blunt force like the butt of a gun and an oblique fracture in her arm that results from twisting and pulling simultaneously. All of these were unhealed fractures, so she died at about that time. She had - we see her as an example of resistance to a person or persons with access to firearms.

And also, interestingly, she was buried in the same burial shaft, but not the same coffin as an elderly man who had a very advanced illness. And that's simply intriguing to us.

CHIDEYA: There was something called The Great Negro Plot, and there was resistance, though it's - over time, people have questioned whether or not it was a white-inspired panic over race, But it was a very volatile time in colonial New York, a very volatile racial environment. One of the things that you found were the bodies of small children. What does that say about the chances for survival in the lives that these people led?

Dr. BLAKEY: Well, we did find very high mortality among children. And in fact, most of those who were American-born were children born and died before reaching adulthood. People were being brought in, being captured and imported in such numbers that allowed the population of Africans in New York to grow. But the population was not growing as a result of fertility. In this regard, the African population in New York resembles very much the Caribbean populations during this period when the slave trade is wide-open and people were being worked to death. There is less - the slaveholders are not interested in African women bearing children in the homes where they work, rather they would simply buy someone ready for work. So this was an - this is an unusual finding in that really brings New York within the same context of the conditions of the slave trade of the Caribbean and other parts of the plantation world.

CHIDEYA: Now, Howard, a lot of people think of New York as one of these northern areas that was free from the bonds of slavery. How do you transmit the message that slavery existed in New York without running into compassion, fatigue or the idea that, oh, that was so long ago, it doesn't matter now?

Dr. DODSON: Well, for the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers and people in the United States in general, slavery was basically an institution of the south. That's the way we've been taught. And our primary concern or interest has been in the relationship of slavery to the origins of the Civil War. And by the 1800s, the narrative that is presented that the north was the good guys who were opposed to slavery, and the south were the bad guys where slavery was and those who were trying entrench it.

The fact of the matter is that all the original 13 colonies were, in fact, slaves societies. And that part of our history and our heritage is something that, not only Africans and people of African descent need to know, but Americans in general need to know because the formative stages of the development of American society was a African and European enterprise. It was never a purely European thing and the people - the Americans living in the United States today will not know who they are or what they have become without engaging some meaningful discussion of this - of the jointness of this kind of enterprise. We've tended to let this other framework brush that whole history under the rug.

And so because of that, we really don't know very much about our early history even here in the United States or throughout the rest of the hemisphere, where the overwhelming majority of the first - of the - settling population during the first 300 years were African - over five and half million of the original six and a half million people who populated the Americas from across the Atlantic were African. Five and a half million of them were African. And that story has not been told.

I - the question of fatigue is something that is always of interest to me. It's certainly a contemporary issue. People have a tolerance for maybe two or three minutes of discussion of anything, but we do that at our peril - our collective peril - because we need to know in a much more profound and fundamental way who Americans are, who the American people are, and how did this particular country come to be what it is. And you can't really tell that story without dealing with slavery and without dealing with the African presence here during the colonial period.

CHIDEYA: Now, Michael, did you run into any problems during the aftermath of 9/11? This is in the region of the World Trade Center. Was there any loss of artifacts during that time?

Dr. BLAKEY: We lost very little. Amazingly, our archeology laboratory was in six World Trade Center, our office of public education was also in number six and - which collapsed. The artifacts, however, once it was possible to get to them, were found to have been, you know, intact. The boxes still intact there was much, you know, a lot of debris upon them, but not the heavy debris that was, you know, right next to them.

Our office of public education, however, run by Dr. Sherril Wilson was destroyed and - but many of those documents could be recreated at least - yes.

CHIDEYA: And was this a situation where now you have another venue for people to learn about this?

Dr. BLAKEY: We've just established the national monument on the African Burial Ground, which opened this past weekend. And it is accompanied with an interpretive center that - you said at the beginning at the - on top of the program the building was not constructed. Well, actually it was. A part of it was not constructed. A pavilion that was supposed to be at the back of the building, and that is where the memorial site has been established.

But there is an interpretive center - a temporary one inside the 290 Broadway building, which is right abut against the burial ground and sits on the spot where - that was cleared where the 419 ancestors were removed. But the - a new interpretive center is planned for the - for early - well, toward the end of next year.

And it will serve as - it and the monument itself will serve as a - basically an educational tool for telling people from now into the - well into the future what the history of that gravesite is. But most importantly, what the nature of the role of people of African descent were - was in the making of New York City and of this hemisphere.

CHIDEYA: What do you want to pass on - just briefly - to your kids, grandkids, any relatives, anyone who is part of the spirit of this country?

Dr. BLAKEY: Well, I'd say first of all that everyone needs to visit the site. That there's a physical monument there that captures and preserves and presents the essence of what the - that heritage is all about, but there's more there.

There's, quite frankly, if you go in the right frame of mind, the spiritual presence of the ancestors, the 15 to 20,000 enslaved Africans that are buried in the seven acres of the burial ground, their spirits are there to communicate with you and to, quite frankly, advise you if you are open to receiving their conversation. This may sound a little mystical to people, but if you go, again, in the right mind, you will experience it.

CHIDEYA: Well, Howard…

Dr. BLAKEY: And we extend the invitation to everyone to go and pay homage to these ancestors.

CHIDEYA: Howard and Michael, thank you so much. And we've been talking to Michael Blakey, the scientific director for the African Burial Ground Project from 1994 to 2004, now at the college of William & Mary; and Howard Dodson, secretary of the African Burial Ground Monument Foundation.

Just ahead, the term black leader is deservedly reviled, but who runs the civil rights agenda today?

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