The African Burial Ground in New York City
By Andrea E. Frohne
(Syracuse University Press, 2015; 444 pgs., illus., $75 cloth, $50 paper; syracuseuniversitypress.syr.edu)
In the late 1980s, the General Services Administration (GSA) made plans to build a large new federal office building in lower New York City in a large complex of city, state, and federal buildings. As required by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, GSA commissioned an environmental impact statement that disclosed the possibility of an old African-American cemetery at the site. In 1991, archaeologists used a backhoe to dig a test trench, and they encountered skeletons and other artifacts, confirming the presence of the cemetery twenty-five feet below the surface.
Historical records and maps indicated that there was a seven-acre African burial ground in the vicinity, which was just north of the city in the 1700s. It was in use from about 1712 to 1795, and as many as 15,000 people were buried there. When the city expanded to the north, the rolling hills of Manhattan Island were leveled for new development, and the cemetery was covered with twenty-five to thirty feet of soil. Buildings were erected on top, and the graves were forgotten. In the 1700s as many as twenty-five percent of New York City’s population was of African descent, most of them slaves. These were the remains rediscovered in 1991.
GSA decided to move ahead with the office building and to remove the affected burials. Archaeologists started to work in October 1991, but controversy soon enveloped the project. Some skeletons were damaged, and others were vandalized. The project became a political battleground with successive archaeological firms caught in the middle. By the end of 1992, 419 sets of remains had been excavated. They were taken to Howard University, a historically black school in Washington, D.C., for study. A memorial area was set aside at the site, and in 2003 the bones were placed in wooden boxes made in Africa and reburied. In 2006, President George W. Bush used the Antiquities Act of 1906 to make the African Burial Ground a national monument, complete with a National Park Service interpretive center.
Author Andrea Frohne, an art historian at Ohio University, tells the story in this absorbing volume that recounts the tale of discovery, public controversies, and archaeological research and analysis. The book is an important case study in public archaeology and how the nation’s historic preservation laws can be utilized for the public’s benefit, even if the process is a tortuous one.
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