Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Disrespecting the Dead

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Disrespecting the Dead

Article excerpt

DNA research on remains from the African Burial Ground Project may be lost forever because of a financial feud

WASHINGTON -- Here in a laboratory at Howard University, hundreds of tiny bone fragments are offering scientists a link with their past. DNA analysis of 30 African American skeletons unearthed in an 18th-century burial ground reveals that some can trace their origins to the African countries of Benin and Niger. The research, scholars say, is vital to establishing biological links to specific ethnic groups in Africa.

The efforts of the researchers are part of the university's African Burial Ground Project, a six-year effort to reconstruct the lives of 400 freed and enslaved Blacks found in a Negro cemetery in New York's lower Manhattan in 1991. The bones are to be officially re-interred in 2002.

"When I'm standing here working on these centuries-old bones, I have to treat them with so much respect," says Dr. Rick Kittles, a geneticist at Howard, who has conducted DNA analysis on the bones. "I have to let them tell their part of the story, the part of their origins -- the part that has been neglected for so long."

But Kitties is worried that many of the skeletons' secrets may stay buried because the project's backer, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), is refusing to fund the analysis of the remaining 370 skeletons of the african burial ground.

"The GSA is clearly reneging on its deal," says Dr. Michael Blakey, a Howard University professor of anthropology who heads the African Burial Ground Project.

This is only the latest chapter in a contentious history between the GSA and the African American community. From the moment the burial ground was discovered, there has been a constant struggle over the bones. The African American community wanted the remains studied because the skeletons and artifacts could provide a rich look at African American life in 18th and 19th century. For the federal agency, the burial ground has come to represent an expensive obstacle to getting its 34-story office building erected.

"No other African American site has revealed such specific origins of the people who are buried there," Blakey says. "When you reveal those origins you are revealing the origins of those of us who are alive today."

GSA officials have had to make concessions to a vocal "descendant community" bent on having a say in the handling of the burial ground remains.

The cemetery was discovered in 1991 when preliminary work was being done on GSA's $276-million office tower. As GSA continued to excavate the site, New York's Black community became outraged at what it perceived as the cavalier handling of African American remains. Later, Black activists became incensed when they learned that the bones were being studied by a contract archeology company in New York that had little or no experience in handling African American remains.

However, GSA refused to stop excavation of the project until then Congressman Gus Savage (D-Ill.) threatened to stop the funding for the building. Blakey, who had been involved with the group of activists and scholars, felt it was important that the research on the bones be done by African American scientists and proposed a $10 million research project.

Eventually in 1993, GSA agreed to fund the African Burial Ground Project, the purpose of which was to try to answer such questions such as, "Where did these people come from? …

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