New York’s Seventeenth-Century African Burial Ground in History
Enslaved Africans were the City’s first union of laborers , an unpaid workforce of men, women and children. They cleared the land, paved the roads and built the infrastructure.
New York’s African Burial Ground is the nation’s earliest-known African- American cemetery.
It has been called one of the most important archaeological finds in our time. But it is more than that: Though long-hidden and much violated, it remains the final resting place of some of New York’s earliest African and African-American residents. And it is an enduring testament to their history.
The first Africans arrived in New Amsterdam around 1625, although a record of their exact arrival date to the region is unknown. Along with European merchants, traders, sailors and farms these en- slaved workers helped to establish the early colony.
Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Africans were an important part of the city’s population, reaching a peak of over 20 percent at the middle of the eighteenth century. In fact, New York became one of the country’s largest centers of slave-holding.
During Dutch rule, enslaved Africans were put to work building forts, mills and new stone houses.
The African laborers, some with previous experience building colonies in South America, did much of the arduous work of building a European-style town in New Amsterdam. They cleared land for farms and shore areas for docks. Former Native American trails were broadened (Broad Way) to accommodate horse-drawn wagons. Operating and working in the colony’s sawmills, the enslaved laborers provided lumber for shipbuilding and export back to Europe.
By 1640, about 500 people lived in New Amsterdam, which was a community of shops, a few dozen homes and several warehouses belonging to the Dutch West India Company (WIC).
Enslaved farm workers oversaw the colony’s farms for absentee Dutch owners, planting, harvesting and managing the day-to-day operations. These farming skills would soon win something very valuable for some of New Amsterdam’s enslaved population–their freedom. During the worst fighting of the Dutch and Indian War, the first community of free blacks in the colonial United States was formed.
On February 25, 1644, eleven enslaved men were freed and given grants of farmland in the dangerous frontier territory north of New Amsterdam. Their wives were granted freedom also, but their children re- mained the enslaved property of the WIC. In time, they were able to buy the freedom of their children. The farms owned by the free blacks spanned the “Negro frontier”, or the “land of the blacks”, the central region of Manhattan Island, extending eventually from what would later become Canal Street to 34th Street.
Freedom for these black farmers did not mean an end to slavery in New Amsterdam. Slave labor continued as a major element of the colony’s public works projects. In 1653, upon Governor Peter Stuyvesant’s orders, the colony’s enslaved workers helped to build New Amsterdam’s most famous fortification, “The Wall” (Wall Street), which spanned Manhattan Island from the East River to the Hudson River. In 1658, the same labor force constructed the region’s first major highway, connecting New Amsterdam with the island’s second-largest and newly founded village in the northern frontier (at 110th Street and the East River). The eleven- mile “road to New Haarlem” later became better known and remembered as Boston Post Road.
Slavery was a chief concern of Governor Stuyvesant, who cultivated the distribution of slaves into Virginia, Maryland and New England, but primarily throughout the Caribbean. Under Stuyvesant, the WIC encouraged English and French planters in Barbados, St. Christopher and other islands to convert from tobacco and cotton to the more lucrative sugar production. Island by island, planters were shown how to consolidate their small island farms into large plantations, change to sugar and invest in slave labor. The WIC invested heavily in all aspects of the cane production, providing credit, plant equipment and enslaved African laborers. By the 1650s, Barbados, the first successful model for the exploitation of slave labor in the Caribbean, had revolutionized the demand for enslaved Africans into the West Indies.
Stuyvesant worked diligently from his base in New Amsterdam to Curacao to repeat the process in other receptive islands.
In 1664, the English conquered the Dutch colony and New Amsterdam became New York. Named for
James II, the Duke of York, who was the principal investor in the “Company of Royal Adventurers
Trading to Africa”, the English slave-trading enterprise, the Duke soon afterward gave port privileges and warehouse priority in the New York colony to ships engaged in the slave trade.
The English imposed strict laws regarding slavery and rescinded many rights for free blacks, including the right to own land. During this period, New York’s African labor force–primarily skilled and semiskilled and mostly enslaved–worked as carpenters, blacksmiths, primers, sailors, dock loaders, tailors, seamstresses, bakers and servants.
In 1711, a marketplace for the sale of slaves opened on a pier located at Wall Street and the East River. By legislative act of the Common Council (City Council), the market became the city’s official slave market where African men, women and children were sold or rented on a daily or weekly basis.
From 1711 until 1762, the market operated almost exclusively as a slave market–though it was not the only place where slaves were bought and sold in the city. Records from colonial New York indicate the city was a major hub for the slave trade in North America.
The Wall Street Slave Market was the principal marketplace but slave auctions were held daily and weekly at other markets in Lower Manhattan, including the Merchant’s Coffee House, the Fly Market and Proctor’s Vendue House. Although the city’s slave population ranged between 15 to 20 percent, most slaves purchased through the New York market were redirected to other slave-holding territories in the
American South. Documents also note that the New York market sometimes received shipments of African children under the age of thirteen. Shut out of churchyards within the city, a burial ground for Africans was developed on a plot of land about a half-mile outside the city. The cemetery was in use by 1713, though the exact date of its founding is unknown. As the enslaved population grew, so did the burial ground, eventually covering five to six acres, or about five city blocks. Even here, harsh legal restrictions applied. No more than twelve persons were permitted in funeral processions or at graveside services and interment was not allowed at night, the customary time for many African burial rituals. Enslaved blacks were required to have a written pass in order to travel more than a mile away from home. For many, that was about the distance from their Lower Manhattan homes to the cemetery located outside of town.
Despite these restrictions, the African Burial Ground served as an important focus for African community identity. Archaeological excavations have shown that the dead were buried individually, most in wooden coffins, arms folded or placed at their sides and oriented with heads to the west. Bodies were buried in shrouds, fastened with brass straight pins and were sometimes buried with items such as coins, shells and beads. Over time, the burial ground became densely crowded with burials stacked three and four deep in some places. Some archaeologists estimate that 20,000 men, women and children were buried at the cemetery.
In 1795, the land of the African Burial Ground, which had been granted to the Van Borsum family in 1673, was subdivided and sold for house lots. The African Burial Ground was closed. Because it lay in a ravine, the land was leveled with as much as twenty-five feet of fill, ensuring the survival of many graves under the basements of later buildings.
In the twentieth century, the area where the African Burial Ground is located developed as New York’s government center. During these years the existence of the African Burial Ground, though recorded on old maps, was effectively forgotten. In 1999, nine intact burials (full or nearly complete human skeletons) were found on the southern edge of the historic ground during construction of the new sidewalk from the Tweed Building on Chambers Street. Unmarked beneath the bluestone sidewalk, thousands walk by or over the burials daily, unaware that much of the cemetery still exists under the neighborhood’s sidewalks, roadbeds and buildings.
The African Burial Ground has since been designated a New York City Historic District and a National Landmark. Its rediscovery and the struggle to protect and recognize it have prompted an increased awareness of the early history of Africans in America. The African Burial Ground is a priceless testament to an important part of our city’s and nation’s history, one that cannot be allowed once again to slip into oblivion.
Note: After some ten years of study, the ancestral remains of the African Burial Ground were given a permanent resting place at the African Burial Ground Memorial Site on October 4, 2003. The Memorial was declared a U.S. National Monument in 2006. (Historian, author, writer Christopher Moore is the chief researcher at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. He traces his personal ancestral history in New York City to Colonial-era enslaved and free Africans and to the Lenape Indians who lived 10,000 years in this area before the arrival of the Colonists.)