From the 1690s until the 1790s, both free and enslaved Africans were buried in a 6.6 acre burial ground in Lower Manhattan, outside the boundaries of the settlement of New Amsterdam, later known as New York. Lost to history due to landfill and development, the grounds were rediscovered in 1991 as a consequence of the planned construction of a Federal office building. So what is African Burial Ground National Monument, where to find it and what is its history?
What is African Burial Ground National Monument and where to find it?
African Burial Ground National Monument is a monument at Duane Street and African Burial Ground Way (Elk Street) in the Civic Center section of Lower Manhattan, New York City. Its main building is the Ted Weiss Federal Building at 290 Broadway. The site contains the remains of more than 419 Africans buried during the late 17th and 18th centuries in a portion of what was the largest colonial-era cemetery for people of African descent, some free, most enslaved.
Historians estimate there may have been 10,000–20,000 burials in what was called the “Negroes Burial Ground” in the 1700s. The Burial Ground site is New York’s earliest known African-American “cemetery”; studies show an estimated 15,000 African American people were buried here.
The discovery highlighted the forgotten history of African slaves in colonial and federal New York City, who were integral to its development. By the American Revolutionary War, they constituted nearly a quarter of the population in the city. New York had the second-largest number of slaves in the nation after Charleston, South Carolina. Area of Lower Manhattan bordered New Amsterdam’s “Common” was the only place that “free” and enslaved Africans were allowed to bury their dead during the 1600s until 1794. The unraveling of this story became one of the most significant, historic urban archaeological projects undertaken in the United States.
History of African Burial Ground
The burial ground in use for city residents in the late 1600s was located at what is now the north graveyard of Trinity Church. The public burial ground was open to all for a fee, including to enslaved Africans. Some burials of deceased slaves were made just south of the public burial ground to avoid the fee.
After Trinity was established in 1697, the vestryman of the church began taking control of land in Lower Manhattan, including existing public burial grounds. When Trinity purchased the land at Wall Street and Broadway for the construction of their church, they passed a resolution on October 25, 1697:
This prohibition against the burial of those of African descent necessitated finding another area acceptable to the colonial authorities. What would become the “Negro’s Burial ground” was located on what was then the outskirts of the developed city, just north of present-day Chambers Street and west of the former Collect Pond.
Labelled on old maps as the “Negros Burial Ground,” the 6.6-acre area was first recorded as being used around 1712 for the burials of enslaved and freed people of African descent. The first burials may date from the late 1690s after Trinity barred African burials in the former city cemetery. The burial ground remained in use until 1794.
After the city closed the cemetery in 1794, the area was platted for development. The grade of the land was raised with up to 25 feet (7.6 metres) of landfill at the lowest points covering the cemetery. As urban development took place over the fill, the burial ground was largely forgotten. The first large-scale development on the land was the construction of the A.T. Stewart Company Store, the country’s first department store; it opened in 1846 at the corner of Broadway and Chambers Street. Several skeletons were unearthed during the commencement of building the store.
The site’s earliest discovery in the early 19th century seems to have aroused little interest. In 1897, when the building at 290 Broadway was demolished to make way for the R. G. Dun and Company Building, workers in excavating found a large number of human bones. Some concluded at that time that these were connected to a 1741 incident in which thirteen African Americans were burned at the stake and eighteen were hanged, however others wondered whether the bones were of Dutch or Indian origin. Many bones were taken as souvenirs by so-called “relic hunters.”
In October 1991, the General Services Administration announced the discovery of intact burials during an archeological survey and excavation for the construction of a new $275 million federal office building at 290 Broadway. The agency had done an environmental impact statement (EIS) prior to purchase of the site, but the archeological survey had predicted that human remains would not be found because of the long history of urban development in that area.
- Dig Unearths Early Black Burial Ground – New York Times
GSA halted construction until the site could be thoroughly assessed. It provided additional funding to conduct a further archaeological excavation to reveal any other bodies on the site and to assess the remains. In large part due to activism by the African-American community, which lobbied the US Congress on this project, in October 1992 Congress passed and President George H. W. Bush signed a law to redesign it in order to stop construction of the pavilion portion of the site and to appropriate $3 million for a memorial in that area. The federal building project was redesigned to preserve part of the archeological site for this purpose. The southern portion of the building, slated to be built on the parcel by Duane and Elk Streets, was eliminated to provide adequate room for a memorial.
In consultation with stakeholders, GSA ran a design competition for the site memorial, which attracted 60 proposals. The winning memorial design by Rodney Leon in partnership with Nicole Hollant-Denis, AARRIS Architects, was chosen in June 2004. The work was completed and dedicated on October 5, 2007.
In February 2010, a visitor center for the African Burial Ground National Monument opened in the Ted Weiss Federal Building at 290 Broadway, which was built over part of the archaeological site. The visitor center includes a permanent exhibit, “Reclaiming Our History,” on the significance of the burial site. Created by Amaze Design, it features a life-sized tableau by Studio EIS depicting a dual funeral for an adult and child. Other parts of the exhibit explore the work life of Africans in early New York and connection to national history, as well as the late 20th-century community success in preserving the burial ground. The visitor center includes a 40-person theater and a shop.
Tuesday – Saturday: 10am – 4pm
Sunday & Monday: Closed
The outdoor memorial is closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
The outdoor memorial is closed from November 1 through March 31 for the winter season.
The indoor visitor center is closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.
The African Burial Ground National Monument does not charge an admission fee. However, donations are accepted and are used for interpretive programming.