Did you know that there is an African Burial Ground dating back the 17th and 18th centuries in Lower Manhattan?
During the preliminary construction phase of a federal office building at 290 Broadway in 1991, workers discovered the remains of more than 400 Africans stacked in wooden boxes just 16 to 28 feet below street level. Construction on what was to become the U.S. General Services Commission building was halted immediately, and a subsequent archeological investigation unearthed the remnants of a five- to six-acre African burial ground used throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.
Enslaved Africans began arriving on the shores of the colony of New Amsterdam as early as 1626, and the area known today as New York City was one of the largest slave trading centers -- second only to Charleston, South Carolina -- throughout the colonial period.
The African Burial Ground, though, wasn't created until the early 1700s, when Trinity Church banned all Africans from its cemetery. The ban left Africans relegated to a deserted area, then more than a mile outside the city limit, to bury their dead. Over time, the grounds became a sacred place for the African community.
As the city began to expand throughout the 18th century, it appropriated the space occupied by the African Burial Ground and covered the site with landfill and debris from the nearby leather and pottery industries. By the time slavery was abolished in New York -- on Emancipation Day, July 4, 1827 -- many had long forgotten about the burial ground. It wasn't until 1991 that its presence was brought back into public consciousness.
When construction workers initially unearthed the burial ground, the federal government resisted permanently discontinuing construction of the proposed $276 million office building. However, the overwhelming response from the African-American community, including then Mayor David Dinkins, in the form of protests, vigils, public meetings, and religious observances eventually won the support of the federal government, and construction on the sacred ground was banned indefinitely.
At the time of its discovery in 1991, the African Burial Ground was recognized as the largest and only known urban pre-Revolutionary African cemetery in the country. In 1993, the federal government declared the site a National Historic Landmark. Between the time of its discovery and its designation as a historic landmark, urban archeologists exhumed the remains of more than 400 African adults and children, along with various artifacts such as beads, coins, and shells, and transported them to Washington, D.C.'s Howard University. There, they underwent extensive research until October 4, 2003, when the remains were returned to Lower Manhattan during a Rite of Ancestral Return commemorative ceremony.
Today, people can visit the African Burial Ground at 290 Broadway (between Duane and Elk Streets) as well as participate in a variety of events and activities run by the African Burial Ground Office of Public Education & Interpretation (OPEI). For more information about the African Burial Ground, please call (212) 337-2001 or click here.