Black New Yorkers and the Fight for the African Burial Ground from the Colonial Period to the Present

By Christopher D. E. Willoughby

In the process of constructing a new federal building in lower Manhattan in 1991, archaeologists uncovered one of the oldest and largest burial sites for Africans and African Americans in colonial North America at 290 Broadway, since dubbed the African Burial Ground. In their rush to construct the building, according to Howard Dodson the then-Director of the Schomburg Center and Chair of Mayor David Dinkins’ Advisory Committee on the African Burial Ground, federal officials ignored their requirement to seek an alternative site to the burial ground in favor of the building of a new skyscraper. They forever altered a sacred space in African diasporic history, destroying human remains and initially ignoring vocal protest of contemporary black New Yorkers. It was only when the cries for respect became too loud to disregard that federal officials slowed construction and formed a committee to ensure that no further damage was done to the historical site.[1] The story of the African burial ground—both its initial history and its excavation—speak to deep historical continuities in the mistreatment of sacred sites in the African diaspora, the callous disregard of black remains by local and national authorities, and the enduring power of culture to aid in the forging of solidarity and resistance in the face of oppression.

The formation and nineteenth-century destruction of the burial ground was not a unique event in African American history, as by 1803 development on and around the burial ground had forced the local African/African American community to abandon the cemetery. However, in the century or more that the site was in use, the burial ground served as a profound site for forming and preserving a diasporic culture in New York. Initially used by free and enslaved Africans to bury their dead on the outskirts of the city in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the burial ground represented a vital space for early black New Yorkers to practice West African customs and form communal ties around shared burial rites. A variety of West African religions as well as Christianity and Islam were reflected in the burial practices, but the broad similarities across the internments also reflected the development of a shared funerary culture among black New Yorkers.[2] In short, not only was the burial ground a space for black New Yorkers to dispose of their dead, but it was also a vital place for them to form a new culture, in a country to which they never asked to come. Like other people in the Black Atlantic World, New Yorkers held funeral processions that might seem like a predecessor to the jazz funerals still common in New Orleans. And until the city banned the practice in 1722, the local African diasporic community buried their family and friends at night, as was common in much of West Africa. When they buried the deceased, they wrapped their bodies in shrouds and placed them with their heads facing west. Thus, even though serious archeological study was forced upon the federal government by the contemporary New York black community, the governments’ study revealed the central role of burying and showing respect to the dead in the new culture being shaped by black New Yorkers in the eighteenth century.

Less known than anecdotes of cultural formation around and the spatial displacement of black New Yorkers from the African Burial Ground is the story of how medical schools robbed the local black community of their loved ones’ remains. The archaeological excavations of the burial ground seem to support what documentary evidence had already suggested—that white medical students at least on occasion raided the burial ground for dissection material. Archaeologists found coffins that appeared to have been buried empty, seeming evidence of thefts. Even in the face of black New Yorkers protesting these robberies, the local government remained indifferent. It would not be until 1788, when working class whites rioted over the issue of medical body-snatching, that the city offered the bodies of executed people to medical schools. In a period where the importance of dissection to medical education was growing, this measure hardly solved the problem, and body-snatchers—who disproportionately targeted African American communities—continued their graft throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. While the state of New York passed a law in 1799 to gradually abolish slavery, it should hardly be surprising that northern medical professionals continued to prey on African Americans to fill their dissecting rooms.

Throughout this period, white medical professionals, even northern abolitionists, were creating medical theories that supported white supremacy. Take for example, Benjamin Rush, a founding father, vocal abolitionist, and professor at the Medical Department of the University of Pennsylvania, who in 1799 wrote an essay arguing that black skin color was a form of leprosy that doctors must cure (a copy of the pamphlet is a part of the collection held by the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery). While Rush was a genuine and ardent opponent of slavery, this hardly meant that he viewed African Americans as equals, otherwise he would not have wished to cure their “leprosy” and turn them white. Thus, the story of local medical professionals praying on the African Burial Ground was all too common, and reflected a white supremacist streak that pervaded the contemporary medical profession. Moreover, recent research shows that the medical profession has yet to eradicate racial bias from its practices.[3]

Though these thefts represented another attack on the local black community, the story of the African Burial Ground is notable because of African Americans’ refusal to passively accept exploitation. Indeed, the Burial Ground’s legacy is more than just another story of the power of white supremacy. While entrenched racism in New York meant that the local black community had to carefully strategize whether and how to confront body snatchers, eighteenth-century Black New Yorkers defended their sacred spaces, just as black New Yorkers did again in the 1990s. First, as discussed earlier, black New Yorkers advocated for reforms to make executed criminals’ bodies available to medical schools and to increase the punishment for body snatching. Second, in a series of editorials in a local newspaper, one local African American man vocally requested these legal reforms, and he also threatened medical students with death, should they ignore Black New Yorkers’ calls for mortuary justice. Prior to the archaeological study of the Burial Ground, this was the extent of our knowledge about how Black New Yorkers opposed the raiding of their cemeteries.

Archaeological research, however, has provided compelling evidence that Black New Yorkers’ threats to confront medical students were not idle. Discovered by researchers and buried in the African Burial Ground were Black New Yorkers, whose bodies showed clear signs of having been dissected and/or autopsied. For example, in what researchers deemed “burial 364”, the remains of an African American man were in complete disarray. Hand bones had been placed in the torso, and other bones expressed clear signs of postmortem lacerations. Thus, the man appeared to have been dissected. It is unlikely, however, that students or professors would have bothered reinterning the corpse in its rightful place. Likewise, “burial 323” was of a man, whose cranium was clearly opened by doctors postmortem. While, once again, it is impossible to know with any certainty how the body was retrieved, whites probably did not willingly return the desecrated bodies of Black New Yorkers. Therefore, a likely answer is that these bodies were not given back but taken back. The hazy stories left by these bones implied that, like in 1991, Black New Yorkers did not passively accept the desecration of their loved ones, ancestors, and sacred spaces. Instead, they confronted white supremacy, utilizing a variety of tactics including direct action, legislative advocacy, and the strategic publishing of editorials in the media.

Finally, the story of the Burial Ground reminds us of history’s powerful and continuous hold over the present. As the anthropologist and director of the African Burial Ground study, Michael Blakey, explained in 1993, “these material remains of African ancestors present themselves during a time of social and emotional strife, when inspirational uplift is most needed in the African-American community, during a time when evidence of the significance of racism in America needs desperately to be brought to bear on the minds of Euro-Americans, and during a time when there is thirst for knowledge about African heritage that has propelled heated debates about the inadequacies of American education.” [4] The fact that Blakey’s words ring true of our present national condition serves as a reminder of the continued relevance of the African Burial Ground, the lessons that its recent and distant history have to teach us, and the continued need to examine the diversity of spaces in American life that contribute to the construction of and resistance to white supremacy.

[1] Statistical research, Inc., The Skeletal Biology, Archaeology, and History of the New York African Burial Ground: A Synthesis of Volumes 1, 2, and 3, vol. 4 of 4 in The New York African Burial Ground: Unearthing the African Presence in Colonial New York (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 2009), 17.

[2] The Skeletal Biology, 60-66. The earliest use of the African Burial Ground remains unclear. It was certainly a cemetery by 1713, but there is reason to hypothesize the site could have been used for burials as early as the 1640s. Edna Green Medford, Emilyn L. Brown, Linda Heywood, and John Thornton, “Slavery and Freedom in New Amsterdam,” Historical Perspectives of the African Burial Ground: New York Blacks and the Diaspora, Edna Green Medford, Ed., Vol. 3 or 4 in The New York African Burial Ground: Unearthing the African Presence in Colonial New York (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 2009), 16-21. Walter R. Perry, Jean Howson, and Barbara A. Bianco, Eds. Archaelology of the New York African Burial Ground, Part 1 of 3, Vol. 2 or 4 in The New York African Burial Ground: Unearthing the African Presence in Colonial New York (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 2009), 3.

[3] Rush, Benjamin. “Observations Intended to Favour a Supposition that the Black Color of the Negroes is Derived from the Leprosy” [In:] American Philosophical Society Transactions 4. (1799).

[4] Federal Steering Committee Transcripts, June 14, 1993, 156, African Burial Ground Committee Files, Box 1, Folder 9, Archives and Manuscripts Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, New York, New York.

More on the African Burial Ground:

Click here for the NYPL/Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture online exhibition.

View the November 2016 Lapidus Center Presents: The African Burial Ground and Beyond public program here.

Christopher D.E. Willoughby received his Ph.D. in History from Tulane University in 2016. His research examines the history of slavery, racial science, and the experiences of African descendants in U.S. schools. Willoughby is currently a Lapidus Fellow/Scholar-in-Residence at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library, where he is working on two book projects. First, he is revising his dissertation into a book entitled Masters of Health: Racial Science and Slavery in American Medical School, which is under advance contract with the University of North Carolina Press. Second, Willoughby is editing a volume with Sean Morey Smith based on a symposium they organized at Rice University entitled Medicine and Healing in the Age of Slavery. The volume is under advance contract with the Louisiana State University Press.