They Are Our Dead: July 4 Lessons from the African Burial Ground

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My job transition last August was…hectic, and I’ll leave it at that. But one of the things I wanted to talk about most before losing my free speech was a quick lunchtime visit to the African Burial Ground on Broadway in downtown Manhattan. I’ve sat on those thoughts for almost a year, now, but it strikes me that this holiday—one that’s become an opportunity for many I know to process a country that openly, rather than surreptitiously, flaunts the grade-school values we’ve been fed all our lives—is a good opportunity to yell about them.

Now, some of you are probably wondering what burial ground I’m talking about, exactly. And before last year, I was in the same position. The only time I’d heard of the Burial Ground was in passing in my Racial Justice and the Law seminar, and when I happened upon it on one of my random jaunts through Google Maps in July 2018, my first assumption was that it was a misprint. We New Yorkers know every patch of green space in our trash city. How did this one slip through the cracks?

Part of the problem is that this was, for hundreds of years, a forgotten burial ground. It was rediscovered during excavations for a federal government building on the site in 1991. The federal government and GSA, exercising the utmost care and sensitivity, immediately determined that they would halt construction and turn the space into a monument to this history instead.

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That, of course, is what should have happened. Instead, construction moved ahead as scheduled and 419 people’s remains were removed from the site in the process. GSA continued to ignore the issue until a concerted effort by activists, including a 24-hour vigil at the construction site, forced Congress to take notice.

Even then, the building was still built. But the plans were amended to provide for both an outdoor memorial and a museum space on the first floor of the building. And the remains, after being entrusted for study at Howard University, were processed back from Washington to New York over six days in 2003 and reinterred in Ghanaian mahogany coffins.
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That study at Howard, combined with historical research, determined that this was functionally the only burial ground available to Black people in Manhattan in its early days, and the burials at this site stretched from 1626 to around 1790. This, of course, means that most of those interred were slaves.

We continue to create narratives that the North was entirely free of slavery from day one. As we know from Hamilton, he and John Laurens cares greatly about freeing slaves. And the question of slavery divided Congress early, presumably because of the strength of the northern states’ abolitionist convictions. But the truth is not so easy.

Even so, when I ask when people think slavery was fully abolished in New York, the dates I get are usually in the late 17th and early 18th century—because New York entered the United States as a free state, right? Instead, the correct answer is July 4, 1827—a date closer to today than it is to the date of the first burial at the Burial Ground. The first manumission law was not passed until 1799, years after the Burial Ground became inactive.

I could write a dozen posts about what we know about slavery in New York, but I’ll merely note one thing: in the 18th century, the second busiest slave market, behind Charleston, was not New Orleans, or Mobile, or Savannah. It was at Wall Street and Water Street in the Financial District, at a site that was not memorialized by a plaque until 2015.

The market originally grew out of fears of a slave uprising in Manhattan; the solution was to buy and sell slaves frequently enough so that they could not organize. Indeed, these fears also affected death and burial: Black people, slave or free, were banned from congregating in large groups or from being out after sunset. Between this and their exclusion from white public cemeteries (de facto at first, then explicitly pursuant to a 1697 law), the Burial Ground emerged outside the city wall (at Wall Street, of course) as a place where traditions could survive, even in the face of oppression.

Of course, this space was available until it wasn’t. As the city expanded, the planners did not see any justification for working around this cemetery, an area that had grown to about six acres. A new city wall in the 1740s was built directly through the Burial Ground, and in the 1790s, the land was divided into lots and sold for development.

In truth, you couldn’t ask for a more on-the-nose illustration. The slaves buried here, through their living labor, laid the foundation for America, its revolution, and its independence. And in death, America was raised up on their backs.

I spend a lot of time talking about the finality of death. And in the past, I’ve avoided the common refrain, among people who have known loss, that a person’s reach and influence continues after death, as long as they are not forgotten.

But in truth, these are two sides of the same coin. The finality of forgetting is merely the next step in the forward march of time’s arrow. The building over of the Burial Ground was an act of forgetting, a signal that nothing was worth remembering about that ground, those people, the cruelty they suffered in life and in death.

And in 1991, the federal government seemed intent on endorsing that decision. Changing the outcome here happened the same way it always does—through a series of activist initiatives and concerted outside pressure. The compromise was insufficient, but in a world that still predated the superpredator debate, a world where the Central Park Five case was still pending, it was a testament to that outside action.

Now, July 4 is not Memorial Day. But this raises the question. Military members who die fighting other people’s wars are clearly our dead, collectively as a country. But shouldn’t that definition of “our dead” be larger? Who do we, as a society, find ourselves responsible for?

We don’t consider the 1 in 830 uninsured people who died a preventable death “our dead”. We don’t consider the 77-year-old inmate who died waiting for his 17th parole hearing for something he did at the age of 20 “our dead”. We don’t consider the 36,000 people who die in motor vehicle crashes every year “our dead”. We don’t even consider the Sandy Hook victims “our dead”.

We don’t consider the slaves who led harsh lives for people who didn’t even consider that they might have humanity, slaves who were buried in an overlooked and makeshift corner of Manhattan, five thousand miles from home, “our dead”.

But on this day when we tie ourselves to our country and our nationalist symbols, we cannot escape their memory, their shadow, their role in what we have today. We as a society carry them with us, if we know it or not.

And we must learn from them.
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Factual statements about the African Burial Ground, if otherwise unsourced, are taken from hard-copy pamphlets from the African Burial Ground National Monument. 

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