Research Communications

Scholar explores the history, controversy surrounding an early African burial site 

By Jessica Salerno

A dense metropolitan area is probably the last place anyone would expect to find an 18th century African burial ground. When the General Services Administration purchased land in lower Manhattan to build an office building in the early 1990s, an archeological survey revealed a 7-acre cemetery. The construction project went on as planned, however.

"There was this huge controversy about spiritual space versus secular space. And this amazing African-American history that gave a direct tie to Africa," says Andrea Frohne, an associate professor of African art history at Ohio University.

The cemetery was used from 1712 to 1795 and contains the remains of about 15,000 African and African-American individuals. The historical documents recovered, as well as research performed on some of the bodies examined after the excavation, paint a graphic depiction of slavery in the United States, she says.
 Andrea Frohne
Andrea Frohne.

Minutes in New York City documents state that burials could not be performed at night, and there was also a law stating that no more than 12 people could be present at an African burial.

"That makes me think that these funerals would have become pretty large gatherings and made Euro-Americans nervous in terms of engaging indigenous cultural traditions," Frohne says.

There were no headstones on any of the graves, and almost all of the bodies were buried with their heads pointing toward the west. Due to the intense physical labor that many slaves endured, there was evident wear and tear on the bodies. Researchers found early signs of arthritis, malnutrition, abscessed teeth, and bones in children's necks that hadn't fused properly because they were carrying heavy loads on their heads at such a young age.

At a ceremony in October 2003, the excavated bodies were reburied. Artworks have been installed inside and outside of the building throughout the last 20 years to commemorate the site, which has been declared a national monument.

Frohne, who is working on a book on the topic, says a variety of opinions exist about how the government handled the site and its restoration. She hopes that her work can serve as a fundamental resource for the African burial ground, as well as an exploration of space, spirituality, and memory at the site.

"Telling this story will help to prompt a rewriting of history to include the pervasiveness of slavery in the northern United States and to acknowledge that it was largely enslaved people who first built what has today become New York City," she says. "The burial ground is therefore significant not only as an African diaspora, but is also a vital part of American history."

This articles appears in the Spring/Summer 2013 issue of Perspectives magazine, which covers the research, scholarship and creative activity of Ohio University faculty, staff and students.