By Sylviane A. Diouf, Director of the Lapidus Center.
Another African Burial Ground was officially “discovered” in New York City in January 2016. Over 140 bones, bone fragments and a skull were recovered last summer at the 126th Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus depot in East Harlem, and preliminary analysis announced on January 20 shows that the skull most likely belonged to a woman of African descent.
If this is news to most, it is not to preservationists, historians, and archivists who have been aware of the existence of the cemetery for years. They first voiced their concern about its future in 2008 when work was done on the Willis Avenue Bridge east of where the burial ground was located.
To preserve, restore and memorialize the site, concerned citizens established the Harlem Burial Ground Task Force co-chaired by Rev. Dr. Patricia A. Singletary pastor of the Elmendorf Reformed Church and New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.
The Task Force’s ultimate goal was, from the start, to remove the MTA bus depot to allow for a proper memorialization. To that effect the group commissioned the Urban Planning Studio at Hunter College to create a conceptual vision for the site. The report “Reclaiming Cultural Heritage: A Plan for the Harlem African Burial Ground” was released in December 2011. It offers three memorial alternatives. In the first one, the bus depot and the memorial coexist; the second has the sprawling building transformed into an educational, artistic, community, and economic development structure; and the third removes the bus depot altogether “to reclaim the area as a memorial site. The design concepts expand from the site to create a historic district that celebrates the cultural heritages of East Harlem, dating back to pre-colonial times when the Lenape named this island Mannahata.”
The story of the Harlem Burial Ground began in 1658 when Governor Peter Stuyvesant ordered enslaved Africans to build a nine-mile road from lower Manhattan to the city known then as Nieuw Haarlem. Seven years later the residents erected the First Reformed Low Dutch Church of Harlem (future Elmendorf Reformed Church) at First Avenue and 127th Street and a quarter acre of land was reserved for a “Negro Burying Ground.”
Free and enslaved African Americans were buried there through the mid-19th century; however in 1853, the land was offered to the highest bidder and sold for $3,000. A casino, and later film studios, were erected on the larger site before it was ceded to the MTA.
The graves of God’s Acre, the white part of the cemetery, were transferred to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx in the 1860s and 1870s. But the remains of Jane Anthony, Herman Canon, Franklin Butler, Margaret Walker and the close to forty people of African descent whose names have been identified still rest under the concrete, the pipes and the earth. “Bringing their memory into the contemporary consciousness of East Harlem,” stresses the Task Force, “will enable residents and visitors alike to understand and appreciate their contribution in the broader context of American history and life in colonial New York.”
And this is not the end of the story of African-American graveyards in New York. In 2014, students at PS48 uncovered the existence of a slave burying ground at Hunts Point in the Bronx. Their point of departure was a 1910 photo published by the Museum of the City of New York.