In the early eighteenth century, when the African Burial Ground was still an active cemetery, only a dozen blacks were permitted in funeral processions of at graveside services. On Saturday, October 4, 2003, some 300 years later, a countless number of African Americans and others assembled at the site to rebury these ancestors who had been torn from their graves in May of 1991.
Since the excavation at the site in lower Manhattan, not too far from City Hall, the human remains and numerous artifacts had undergone all sorts of forensic and scientific tests. They had also been the source of much turmoil and controversy, as community activists challenged the jurisdiction of the U.S. general Services Administration (GSA) over the ancestral remains.
Some of that derision still simmered during the weeklong celebration launched in the nation’s capital where the remains, or at least symbolic four crypts, began the 6-city journey back to the final resting place, including stops in Baltimore, Delaware, Philadelphia and Newark. Under threatening skies and a constant drizzle, the remains of 419 African captives and free Blacks were lowered into massive crypts, “never to be disturbed again,” a voice in the crowd muttered.
The remains were reinterred at the heart of a five-acre plot that may have been a cemetery of some 20,000 bodies, historians estimate, making it not only the oldest African American cemetery in the nation, but the largest of the African presence on the island in 1625 when it was called New Amsterdam and under Dutch control. It was mainly the uncompensated labor of these early African captives that leveled the forest, built the piers, turned Native American trails into roads, and erected the homes and structured what would later grow into skyscrapers.
“In 1664, the English conquered the Dutch colony, and New Amsterdam became New York,” Schomburg Center’s research coordinator Christopher Moore wrote in eh event’s program. “The English imported strict laws regarding slavery and rescinded many rights for free blacks, including the right to own land. During his period New York’s African labor force, primarily skilled and semiskilled and mostly enslaved – worked as carpenters, blacksmiths, printers, sailors, dock loaders, tailors, seamstresses, bakers and servants.” Indentured African labor even built the “wall” (from which the vicinity derives its name) that stretched from river to river to protect the settlers.
When the boat docked on Friday, after completing the journey from Jersey City, NJ, the symbolic remains were brought to shore, near the same spot a few of the African captives may have landed centuries ago. It was at or near this site that the city’s official slave market operated from 1711 to 1762. Undoubtedly, this spot was major port during the Atlantic slave trade. During the festivities, which were cosponsored by the Schomburg Center and the GSA, many participants were stunned to learn that New York had more African captive than any other colony in the country except for Charleston, South Carolina.
Another indication of the large population of African captives in the state and the city were the number of insurrections that mortified the white residents. A year after the slave market was established, an uprising rocked the region. There were widespread acts of arson the men and women in bondage south to burn their way to freedom. Alerted in time, the city’s militia quickly snuffed out the rebellion, though there were several casualties on both sides. “The city authorities enacted a law that same year which empowered any three justices and five freeholder to invoke the death penalty without trial by jury upon any slave suspected of conspiring to bring about his freedom, James Allen noted in his boo, “The Negro in New York.”
A generation later, a much large and organized revolt erupted in 1741. This time sympathetic whites joined the African captives, including white women. The plan included burying of the local fort, the residences in eh area, and massacring the white slave holders. One of the white women involved, believing she had been betrayed by her black lover, confessed to the outbreak of arson an named her cohorts. Fourteen black men were burned at the stake, eighteen were hanged, and seventy-one were banished to other slave colonies. . Four whites were also executed and a number of others were forced into exile of their participation in the aborted rebellion.
According to one historian, the whites involved in the revolt were buried along with the blacks that were executed, thereby answering the bewildering question of white skeletal remains in the African Burial Ground. (Herb Boyd’s coverage of the New York commemorative event continues in the “Ancestral Presence” Supplement section.)