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African Burial Ground National Monument in New York City

The first known African slaves arrived circa 1626 in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, in the area now called Lower Manhattan.  According to legend, the name Manhattan derives from a native Lenape, or Delaware, word meaning island of many hills.

In that time and place, the practice of slavery was slightly less cruel than it would become.  The Dutch recognized certain rights of slaves, including the right to property.

In 1664, England took control of the colony, renamed it after the Duke of York, and imposed harsher slave codes, which among other things forbade property ownership.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade continued legally until 1808, and illegally afterwards.  During this time, kidnappers captured native Africans from regions throughout the continent.  Then they would typically pack these captives into “slave fortresses”, coastal structures where they often remained in filthy conditions for four to six weeks.  Today historians think that there were about 40 of these slave fortresses.

From there, the captives would board ships for the weeks- or months-long trans-Atlantic voyage known as “Middle Passage”.  Next they would arrive in America or the Caribbean to be sold at auction.  And they would most likely spend the rest of their lives in slavery, far from home.  The Door of No Return is a metaphor referring to the portal each one passed through on the way out of the fortress and toward the ship.

Negroes Burial Ground

In 1711, a slave market opened at the foot of Wall Street on the East River.  By the middle of the 18th century, black residents made up about 20 percent of the population of New York City.  But they were banned from church graveyards, and so they had to find another place to bury their dead.  The so-called
Negroes Burial Ground likely began use some time during the 17th century.  Then the city closed it circa 1794 and platted the area for development.

New York slowly outlawed slavery during 1799-1827.  As time went on, the island of many hills morphed into the island of ugly buildings.  And the Negroes Burial Ground was all but forgotten, and with it the remains of roughly 15,000 people, skeletons beneath the sidewalks and skyscrapers of Manhattan.

a historic discovery

In May 1991, a federal agency began excavating land in Lower Manhattan to build an office building.  A few months later, the agency announced that it had found eight intact burials.  Protest exploded almost immediately, but the government kept digging.  The following year, President George H.W. Bush signed a law ordering the agency to stop digging up the dead.

By then, workers had unearthed the skeletal remains of 419 people.  Many wore shrouds fastened with brass straight pins and faced East, toward Africa.  Some coffins also contained simple items like coins, beads, and shells.

Scientists at Howard University in Washington, D.C., studied the bones, artifacts, and fragments.  They found that nearly half of the buried were under 12 years old at the time of death.

In the fall of 2003, the remains returned to New York via Jersey City.  They travelled in individual hand-carved coffins from Ghana.

From Jersey City, the coffins sailed by boat down the Hudson, around the southern tip of Manhattan, to the Wall Street Pier 11 on the East River.  At the site of the old slave market, they were loaded into horse-drawn, glass-enclosed carriages for their trip’s final leg back to the Burial Ground.  As they passed by, the bells tolled at Trinity Church, in whose graveyard Alexander Hamilton lies under a large tomb.

After arriving at the Burial Ground, the coffins were placed in seven large crypt-like containers and then buried on October 4 in a spot near where the remains had first been found.

a historic monument

Four years later, the African Burial Ground National Monument was dedicated.

Three years after that, a Visitor Center opened.

Today its displays teach the story of the Burial Ground and of the lives of Africans and African descendants in early New York City.  I visited recently with the D.C. History and Culture group.

From the small museum, visitors can walk a short way along the sidewalk to the Memorial.

Seven trees stand over the seven burial mounds of the Ancestral Reinterment Ground.

The 24′-high Ancestral Chamber represents “the soaring African spirit”.  Its outer Wall of Remembrance features a symbol called Sankofa, which means something like, “Learn from the past”.  Its inside recalls the hold of a ship.  Visitors enter through an opening called the Door of Return.  

From the Chamber, visitors can walk to the Circle of the Diaspora, which refers to the forced spreading of Africans from their homeland.  A circular ramp leads down four feet to the Ancestral Libation Court.

There simple descriptions of some of the unearthed remains surround a map of the Atlantic Ocean, referring to the Middle Passage.

Below ground and tucked away from the bustle of Lower Manhattan, it’s the most peaceful public spot I’ve found in New York City.

What to Know before You Go to the
African Burial Ground National Monument

The African Burial Ground is the oldest and largest known excavated burial ground in North America for Africans and African descendants.  The National Park Service operates the African Burial Ground National Monument.

The Visitor Center is located at 290 Broadway in New York City.  It is free of charge to visit, but you must go through security screening to enter.  A 20-minute movie tells the history of the African Burial Ground.  Rangers give 30-minute tours of the small museum.

The Memorial is located at the corner of Duane and Elk Streets.  It is also free and open to the public.

Allow 60 to 90 minutes.

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