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Journey into the Past

November 1, 2011

Zetta Elliott, an assistant professor in the Center for Ethnic Studies, was “obsessed” with archaeology as a child. This is one of the many reasons why she established a personal connection with the African Burial Ground, located just minutes away from BMCC’s main campus.

“The burials tell us so much about the lives of enslaved Africans. We know what their diet was like, their work load, the length or brevity of their lives,” she said. 

This fall, Elliott took four of her classes: two sections of Black Women in the Americas, History of African Civilization, and Contemporary Black Writers, on a tour of the African Burial Ground.

The Visitor Center is located at the Ted Weiss Federal Building (290 Broadway), and just around the corner on Duane Street are the Burial Ground Monument and the Ancestral Reinterment Ground.

“We're studying slavery in all of my courses,” said Elliott. “We read contemporary novels of enslavement and watch films about slavery. But visiting the African Burial Ground makes the history come alive—it's no longer just an academic subject, it’s an actual experience.”

Elliott’s BMCC students met with a Park ranger, watched an historic video about colonial slavery, and also explored the burial ground, chambers, and monuments on the Duane Street sidewalk between the Visitor’s Center and the Monument.

Because the African Burial Ground is located on federal property, Park rangers present educational programs and provide tours of the commemorative art commissioned for the African Burial Ground National Monument.

History of African Burial Ground

The story behind the African Burial Ground is as follows. In colonial America, Africans were brought in from different parts of the continent—including regions that are currently the countries of Ghana, Madagascar, and Sierra Leone.

Separated from their families, they were forced into ships and in 1626, the first enslaved laborers were brought to the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (an early name for New York) to work predominantly in Lower Manhattan.

They filled swamps, built streets such as present-day Broadway and, because the early Dutch feared a British invasion, the laborers even constructed a protective wall at what is now present day, “Wall Street.” Even children had to work. 

Common causes of death for these laborers included yellow fever, physical strain, and smallpox.

Despite the harsh conditions and treatment, the slaves possessed a sense of tradition through cultural rituals passed down from generation to generation, including burial of the dead. A Dutch Law passed at that time forbade the laborers from burying their loved ones in New York’s public cemetery.

Therefore, from 1626 to the late 1700s, Africans and African descendants buried their relatives in what is now downtown Manhattan. This land covered 6.6 acres, including the space at what is currently the African Burial Ground Visitor Center and Monument

To them, this was sacred ground and the dead were buried with honor and respect. 

Oftentimes, mementos such as buttons, coins, and jewelry were placed within the coffins.

The burial ground was closed in 1794, and over time, Manhattan built over the land. Office buildings went up, roads were constructed, and so forth. But then, in 1991, human remains and graves were unearthed, and the long-forgotten African Burial Ground came to light.

An acre of the original cemetery was excavated and 419 skeletal remains were housed in the basement of Lehman College, before they were shipped to Howard University in Washington D.C., home to one of the nation’s leading African American research institutes.

The Burial Ground today

Scholars studied the remains, revealing fascinating information about the life and death of each colonial New York laborer. The researchers learned whether the skeletons were male or female, infant, child, or adult, and in some circumstances, how they died.

In 2003, all 419 remains were placed in hand-carved coffins from Ghana, and a ceremonial journey helped bring the coffins back to Manhattan, where they were reinterred (reburied) right where they were initially found. Seven mounds now adorn this site. 

Community activists in New York, Washington, D.C., and other major cities rallied to preserve the burial ground and commemorate African history. 

The African Burial Ground National Monument was officially opened to the public in October 2007, as a place of remembrance. The people and their stories teach visitors how enslaved Africans contributed to the construction of Lower Manhattan in colonial times.

At the Outdoor Memorial, visitors can find The Circle of the Diaspora, which includes signs and symbols engraved in the perimeter wall, reminding visitors of the complexity and diversity of African cultures.

“A student recently emailed me to say that a tattoo on her wrist matches one of the adinkra symbols carved onto the monument. She said when she got the tattoo a year ago it had some meaning to her, but after visiting the Burial Ground, she now feels like it represents so much more,” said Elliott. 

More than a field trip

According to Elliott, at the African Burial Ground, students can engage with the evidence, ask the Park rangers questions, and “reflect upon the significant role enslaved people played in the development of this city.”

“Slavery wasn't confined to the South and it didn't just take place on large plantations. The burial ground reveals that slavery was also urban, northern, and just as brutal,” she continues. “And, if the descendant community hadn't mobilized to protect the burials found at 290 Broadway, we wouldn't have the National Monument.”

Elliott wants her students to understand that history isn't something observed passively—it's something that's “shaped by ordinary people every single day.”

Student Shelle Wharton called the African Burial Ground, “an inspirational experience.”

“I made a vow to spread the word about the Burial Ground, because many people don’t know about it,” said Wharton. “My goal is to spread awareness.  Everyone, regardless of race, sex, age, or class, should visit the African Burial Ground."

Past meets present

Elliott said the most rewarding responses came from students who recognized “a kind of continuum between their contemporary lives and the lives of those buried in the African Burial Ground.” 

On one of the bodies found at the burial site, scholars uncovered waist beads that circled one woman''s hip bones.

One of Elliott’s students wears waist beads to more closely identify with her African heritage and on her visit to the African Burial Ground, she was surprised to see learn that at least one of her New York ancestors did the same hundreds of years ago. 

“The burials tell us that these people were hybrid—holding onto their African customs while also embracing ‘new world’ objects and practices,” said Elliott. “It's incredibly gratifying to know that most students had never heard of the African Burial Ground and so appreciated being introduced to this history through our field trip.”

Elliott’s student Christopher Colon is a native New Yorker.

“I’m glad the Burial Ground is accessible. It represents an important part of New York’s history that has been ignored for years,” said Colon. “It’s nice to knowing I can visit the site anytime and pay my respects.”

The literary inspiration

Originally from Toronto, Elliott “fell in love” with New York City—especially Brooklyn—after she graduated from college.

“I loved the brownstones, the trees, the churches, and parks…everything seemed to hold secrets of the past,” she said. “There was nothing in the Toronto landscape that spoke to me in that way; nothing indicated that my black ancestors, descended from African American slaves, had been living in Canada since 1820. But in Manhattan, history is everywhere.”

In fact, Elliott feels such a connection with Lower Manhattan that her next novel, Ship of Souls, slated for publication in March 2012, centers around the African Burial Ground.

“I want to make sure that future generations grow up knowing that this precious history surrounds them and deserves to be studied and honored.”

The African Burial Ground recently celebrated its 20 year anniversary. For more information, or for a map of the ABG, click here.

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  • The African Burial Ground recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary
  • Elliott teaches her students about Manhattanâ¿¿s slave history
  • Students felt a strong connection to their African Heritage during Monument tour

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