The remains of 20,000 African men, women and children have lain
beneath the busy streets of New York for 300 years, waiting to tell
their stories on the extent of slavery in the city.
In March 1992, leading African-America archaeologist Michael
Blakey arrived at the burial ground in downtown Manhattan. "I had read about these people documented as chattel," he said.
"Now I was going to learn about these Africans in New York as human
A haunting sight greeted him. Being winter, work was taking place
under a translucent plastic tent.
"I'd really never seen an excavation like that one," he said.
"There were mini excavators working and kerosene heaters going. By the time I got there, 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 child.
Sign of slavery
They had devastating secrets to share, information that would
reveal the extent of slavery in New York.
"Quite early on, we found the skull and thorax of an individual
with filed or 'culturally modified' teeth - and that stunned me
because that is very rare," Mr Blakey said.
There are only about nine skeletons in the whole of the Americas
that have been discovered with filed teeth, he said.
"In the African burial ground we found at least 27 individuals with
This suggested 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
"These kinds of irreversible identifiers put people at risk who
might want to escape," Mr Blakey said.