African Burial Ground under New York Streets

Article excerpt

A clumsy, chain-link fence encloses a seemingly insignificant patch of grass amid the stone faades of Manhattan's courthouses and government buildings. But for many, this is sacred ground.

It is an African burial ground. The plot of land is just a sliver of the 18th-century cemetery now known to lie under five city blocks surrounded by New York's City Hall and the US Courthouse and State Supreme Court. And for almost a decade, this site has also been a battleground between the African-American community and the Federal government, the owner of much of this land.

Many consider this burial ground to be one of the nation's most significant archaeological finds this century. And, since its rediscovery during the construction of a Federal office building, many African-Americans have seen it as an important part of their cultural heritage. "You could call it our Plymouth Rock or Jamestown," says Michael Blakey, scientific director of the federally funded project to study the site. He is also one of the most vocal critics of the General Services Administration (GSA), the government agency that oversees the $15 million project. Other African-American burial sites in Texas and Washington, D.C., face similar conflicts as local communities try to prevent development on the land. More than 200 years ago, before the Revolutionary War, this area on the outskirts of Colonial New York was the final resting place for more than 20,000 African men, women, and children, both slave and free. Over the years, it was forgotten. Studies of the site have brought many surprises. It was not previously known that there was such a significant African presence in New York and that virtually all were enslaved. "We have a standard mythology in this country of a slaveholding South and a freedom- loving North," says Dr. Blakey. "It's not generally understood that 40 percent of the original Dutch colony and up to 20 percent of the English colony were enslaved Africans. …