For three hundred years the buried remains of 20,000
African men, women and children lay beneath what had since become the
busy streets of New York, waiting to tell their stories of the extent
of slavery in the city.
In March 1992, leading African-American archaeologist
Michael Blakey arrived at the burial ground in downtown Manhattan. He
had read about these people being documented as chattel. Now he was
going to learn about these New York Africans as human beings.
A haunting sight greeted him. Being winter, work was
taking place under a translucent plastic tent. Mini-excavators were
at work and kerosene heaters were keeping the place tolerably warm.
By the time Blakely arrived, about a dozen burials were in the process
of being exposed. One could see very clearly the positions that were
meant to put them at peace when they were buried.
Many had their arms crossed. One female skeleton
had tiny bones by her side, suggesting a woman cradling a new born
Sign of slavery
They had devastating secrets to share, information
which would reveal the extent of slavery in New York. Quite early
on, the skull and thorax were found of an individual with filed
or 'culturally modified' teeth - a very rare finding and one which
rather stunned Blakey.
Up to this point, only about nine skeletons in
the whole of the Americas had been discovered with filed teeth.
In this particular African burial ground at least 27 individuals
were found with filed teeth. This suggested that these people had
come to New York directly from Africa before importation was banned
in 1808 and American slaveholders started 'breeding' slaves on the
plantations in the south.
Irreversible identifiers of this nature put people
at risk who may want to escape. Runaway adverts in newspapers
seeking to re-capture the many escaped enslaved Africans often
mentioned dental modification - so no slave would voluntarily
choose to have that kind of marker.
'Worked to death'
But these enslaved Africans helped to create the
city of New York. They worked as stevedores in the docks and as
labourers building the fortification known as Wall Street, which
protected the city against attack from native Americans.