By Andrew Larson ’08
LEWISBURG, Pa. — In 1991, when archaeologists started excavating a site in lower Manhattan to build a federal office building, they discovered a massive collection of human skeletal remains.
Located about a block from City Hall, the site contained the remains of at least 15,000 slaves, said Michael Blakey, scientific director of the New York African Burial Ground project.
The discovery disproves any doubts about the presence of slaves in New York and the other 12 colonies during the 17th and 18th centuries, Blakey said Monday night (Nov. 6) at Bucknell University’s 20th Annual Black Experiences Lecture.
Slaves in New York
"The idea that there had been slaves in New York was new to many people," Blakey said.
The public has been misled through a "systematic distortion and omission" of facts about the pervasiveness of slavery, said Blakey, a professor of anthropology and American studies at the College of William and Mary.
In colonial America, the vast majority of Africans in and around New York were enslaved, Blakey said. They worked as house servants, at ports unloading ships, and on plantations harvesting rice, sugar cane, tobacco, and cotton. In 1827, slavery was outlawed in New York, although Blakey said it persisted for years.
Research on 419 bodies
Blakey and his archaeology team exhumed and conducted research on 419 of the bodies at the burial ground. Evidence indicated that many of the slaves came from West Africa and were channeled through the Caribbean to the New World.
Many showed signs of abuse and neglect. Some had unhealed fractures. Others had burn damage. Researchers believe some were crushed to death by stones — a form of torture during the era. One had a musket ball lodged in place of a cheekbone.
Many of the slaves’ teeth were streaked with lines of discoloration, indicating hyperplasia caused by malnutrition, Blakey said. The slaves’ life spans were usually short, and infant mortality rates were high.
Surprise to African-Americans
"On one hand, this finding was kind of a surprise to many African-Americans," Blakey said in a slow deliberate voice. "On the other hand, it’s what they expected to find."
The burial site has a history of being desecrated. During the 18th century, free blacks petitioned against the frequent robbing of graves and dissection of cadavers by New York medical students. Tensions culminated in the riots of 1788, Blakey said.
"The English and the Dutch and the Euro Americans were contesting [Africans’] humanity as they desecrated the site in the 18th century," Blakey said. "Africans were attesting to their humanity."
In 1991, the discovery of the burial ground resurrected some of those same concerns. Many blacks protested against the government’s intention to build on top of the site, which they said undermined its sanctity. After a public outcry, the government stopped development of the site in 1992, turning it over to Blakey and his researchers. Now, the site has been designated as a National Monument of the National Park System and a memorial is being constructed in honor of the thousands of Africans who remain buried there.
Posted Nov. 8, 2006