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Colonial Americas

African Foundations of New York

by Jane Beresford, from the BBC Series 'I Too Am America', 26 April 2004

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 which 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 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.

Akan people
Akan people - photographed here around the beginning of the twentieth century - migrated into regions of modern Ghana from around the eleventh century AD, but probably in smaller family groups rather than as a single mass movement of people

Evidence from the burial site revealed, for the first time, the enormous human cost of such work. Half the remains were of children under the age of twelve. Women were usually dead by forty. It seems that it was cost-effective for slave traders to work people to death and then simply to replace them, so Africans were sought who were as young as possible, but ready to work.

From royalty to slavery?

The woman designated as 'Burial 340' was a very intriguing person. She was in her forties - and for the burial ground population that made her pretty old, according to archaeologist Sherrill Wilson, now director of interpretation at the African Burial Ground.

Around her waist the woman wore a belt of over a hundred beads and cowrie shells. In some parts of Africa in the 1700s, it was illegal for people who were not members of royal families to own even one of these beads - and she had a plentiful supply.

Such treasures are known to have belonged to Akan-speaking people. Had this woman been born into royalty in Ghana and then died a slave in New York City? And who chose to bury her with the waist belt of beads?

The beads were very valuable items. Their burial with their owner implied that whoever buried her could have chosen to sell those items to feed themselves - but they made the choice to bury them with her. Perhaps it was a tradition, a rite, or an act of defiance against those who had enslaved a woman of noble birth.

The skeletons of eighteenth century slaves were able to speak to those living free today to remind them that New York - one of the world's great immigrant cities - destroyed as well as created destinies.

  Had this woman been born into royalty in Ghana and died a slave in New York City?  


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