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Vol.64/No.10      March 13, 2000 
 
 
Grave site exposes brutality of slavery in early New York 
 
 
BY BRIAN WILLIAMS  
NEW YORK--For the past six years a team of researchers led by biological anthropologist Michael Blakey of Howard University has been examining the bones of more than 400 African slaves buried a few blocks from city hall here. They plan to release a series of reports on their findings this year.

The controversy surrounding this story exposes some important facts about how various forms of labor, including bonded labor, built New York into the city it was to become.

The accidental unearthing of bones and skeletal remains of slaves from Africa, who worked under brutal conditions on the island of Manhattan in the 1700s, sheds new light on the scope to which slavery was an integral part of the history of this city, and not just a "peculiar institution" in the South.

The story coming to light from a scientific examination of these bones provides an important glimpse of a previously untold story that reveals the absolute brutality, racism, and inhumanity of capitalism from its very earliest days.

"That the graves existed at all surprised New Yorkers who grew up believing that theirs was a 'free' state where there had never been slavery," wrote Brent Staples in a January 9 New York Times opinion column. He points to the findings to be revealed by the Blakey team that will "show that colonial New York was just as dependent on slavery as many Southern cities, and in some cases even more so."

Commenting on his research, which documents the extent of slavery in the North, Blakey points out, "These facts have been hidden by selective education that created a mythology of America."

In 1991 workers digging a foundation for a 34-story federal office building in downtown Manhattan came across a number of unmarked grave sites, some as deep as 28 feet beneath street level. The General Services Administration (GSA), after reviewing the New York archives, announced that the site was listed as a "Negros Burying Ground." When it became clear to city authorities that there were hundreds of skeletal remains there--threatening expensive delays to their $500 million construction project--the GSA brought in a larger force of workers and organized them to rapidly excavate all of the remains.

An outcry by various individuals and organizations in the Black community put a stop to this. This burial ground, which had apparently been used for more than a century, covered five acres of land--bordered by Broadway, Elk, Duane, and Reade Streets. It turned out to be the largest and earliest African burial site in the nation, containing remains of 10,00020,000 people by the time it was closed in 1794.

A total of 427 sets of human remains were moved to Lehman College in the Bronx, where a city-appointed Metropolitan Forensic Anthropology Team, which is usually called in for criminal investigations, took charge of the study. Blakey and others protested this move to conduct what amounted to a coroner's examination rather than an historical and archeological study. In 1992, Blakey succeeded in winning approval from the GSA to turn these bones over to the African Burial Ground Project, which he would direct. This study, which involves both physical examinations and DNA studies, began in mid-1994. "The GSA persistently and inexplicably has thrown stumbling blocks in our way," said Blakey.  
 

'Not a genteel state of affairs'

"We need to tell our own story and tell it right, not just for our ancestors, but for their living descendants," he stated. "It's clear that slavery in New York was hard both physically and psychologically," and not as some have argued a "genteel and benign" state of affairs.

These African slaves were literally worked to death carrying out such tasks as constructing the streets of the city, clearing land, loading and emptying ships, and even building the Trinity Church. Slaves erected the wall from which Wall Street takes its name, as protection from military attacks on the former Dutch colony.

The study shows that the highest mortality rate was among those 15 to 20 years old. Many of these individuals died of unrelenting hard labor. Strains on the muscle and ligaments were so extreme that arm, leg, and shoulder muscle attachments were ripped away from the skeletons--taking chunks of bone with them. Circular fractures at the base of the skull were the result of heavy loads carried on the head or shoulders. In some cases, the injuries were fatal, as the spine was pushed all the way up into the cranial cavity. About 40 percent of the 427 skeletons found belonged to preadolescent children, many of whom died of malnutrition, and suffered from rickets, scurvy, anemia, or related diseases.

"These people were obviously working at the very margins of human endurance and capacity, especially undernourished children," states Blakey. "Women who gave birth in these conditions knew that they were bringing their children into hell."

Among the findings of the study is the lack of fertility among many women slaves. Women as well as men were forced to do "arduous physical labor," commented Blakey, and when they were worn out they were just replaced with other slaves.

The Dutch colonial masters recruited settlers with advertisements that promised to provide them with slaves who "would accomplish more work for their masters, at less expense than [white] farm servants."

According to Blakey, about 6 million people came from the old world to the Americas from 1492 to 1776. Only 1 million of those people were European. The rest were mainly African. By about 1660, the population of New York (then a Dutch colony called New Amsterdam) was 40 percent African, about half of whom died by age 12. Thirty or 40 percent of those died in infancy. The first African slaves were brought to America in 1626, two years after the Dutch settled New Amsterdam. Slavery was outlawed in New York in 1827.  
 
 
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