How The African Burial Ground National Monument Came To Be

by MSO
The African National Burial Ground monument in NYC

The African National Burial Ground was rediscovered in 1991. Approximately 15,000 free and enslaved Africans were buried in the five or six acre burial ground that dates from the 17th century.

Plans for a new Federal building in Lower Manhattan were halted when, in October 1991, the discovery of a slave burial ground was made.

Initially, archaeologists who had been asked to survey the area predicted that there would be nothing of interest in the area, as the neighborhood surrounding 290 Broadway had long been subjected to economic development. However, a grave site consisting of hundreds wooden boxes with intact remains soon gained the interest of the public eye.

With the aid of historical documents, archaeologists began the excavation process and found the burial site had an interesting history behind it.

The site was used as a final resting place for over 420 black slaves, giving it the name “Negros Burial Ground.” The number given to the remains discovered is said to not necessarily correlate to the number of actual bodies that were buried there – because of the urban development in the area, archaeologists could only uncover approximately a tenth of the area.

It was discovered that the burial area was used between 1690 and 1794, a period of transition for New York. Within the 100 year time frame the city changed its name from New Amsterdam to New York City, and by the time the city closed the cemetery in 1794 it was on the brink of state legislature that would gradually abolish slavery, with one third of the black population in the city considered “free”.

aerial view of the circular granite African Burial Ground

An aerial view of the African National Burial Monument which is located in Lower Manahatten.

The site also acted as a catalyst for an incident in 1788 called the Doctors’ Riot – a violent outburst from the public who were outraged at the doctors and medical students who visited the graveyard and many others in the city to steal corpses and use them for experimentation and research.

There were no mass burials within the grave site, and of the bodies buried there, over half were children under the age of twelve.

When the grave site was rediscovered in 1991, African-Americans staged several public protests against the practices that the archaeologists were using to excavate these grave sites. The efforts of these protestors helped shift control over the burial site’s excavation over to Howard University, a historically black college, and gathered 100,000 signatures to petition the Department of Interior to grant the grounds landmark status. 1992 saw the burial grounds added to the National Register of Historical Places, and in 2006 it was officially designated a National Historic Landmark.

The General Services Administration, the organization that announced the discovery of the remains in October 1991, called on the public to design a memorial for the site. The contest attracted 60 possible ideas and was eventually designed by Rodney Leon in June 2004, with construction finishing in 2007. In that time, President George W. Bush announced that it was the country’s 123rd National Monument.

Inscription engraved on African Burial Ground Monument

The inscription engraved on the African Burial Ground monument

A visitor centre, which first opened in February 2010, houses a permanent exhibit that displays the research conducted by Howard University and the New York Historical Society. The discovery of the burial grounds is considered to have changed the general public’s views on slavery and African-American history within the United States.

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