The African Burial Ground in New York City is a national monument operated by the National Park Service in Lower Manhattan. It is one of the most important black historical sites in New York as well as having one of the coolest little museums in downtown NYC.
African Burial Ground History
The African Burial Ground was an accidental discovery in 1991 when the federal government started excavating at 290 Broadway for a new Federal office builidng. When human remains were found 30 feet below the surface, the long-forgotten African Burial Ground history came to light.
This African Burial Ground in New York City was a burial site for both free and enslaved slaves because slaves were not permitted to be buried in churchyards. .This plot of land in a ravine became a de facto burial ground. It was owned by a Dutchwoman who herself owned slaves.
Her family sold the land in 1795 to developers to build houses. The ravine got filled with as much as 25 feet of landfill to level it off and make it suitable for housing. As a bonus, the bodies underneath the landfill were preserved. A new cemetery for blacks was opened.
The existence of this unofficial African burial ground in New York was lost in the mists of time until the 20th century. It is an important archeological discovery and sheds light on the importance of both free and enslaved Africans in the early development and prosperity of New York City.
African Burial Ground Facts
The African Burial Ground eventually got so crowded the coffins were piled 4 deep in the site!
It covered approximately 6 acres and held the remains of an estimated of 15-20,000 people dating from 1630s to 1795.
Despite the huge number of people buried at the African Burial Ground, these burials were not a mass grave. Most of the deceased had coffins and some were in clusters indicating families buried together.
Only about 10 percent of the burials happened without coffins and it’s surmised these burials happened during and after the American Revolution.
There were strict rules on what was allowed at African burials. For example, no more than 12 mourners were permitted at a procession or at the graveside. A 1722 rule bans burials at night.
Over 40% of the people buried at the African Burial Ground were children under the age of two.
Slavery and the Dutch Settlers in New York
The first known person of African descent in New York was Juan Rodrigues. Rodrigues was a Portuguese/African sailor from Santo Domingo who set up a trading post in New Amsterdam in 1613 for the valuable trade of beaver pelts. (New Amsterdam later became New York after the Dutch lost their colony to the British in 1664).
In fact, Juan Rodrigues set up his trading post before the early Dutch settlers in New York arrived.
The first known African slaves arrived as labor for the Dutch West India Company in 1625 shortly after a boatload of 30 Dutch families sponsored by the Dutch West India Company arrived to colonise the land in 1624.
Early Dutch settlers in New York, however, needed enslaved Africans for the growth of their colony.
For example enslaved Africans cleared a local Native American trail to create Broadway to allow passage of horse drawn wagons. They built the wall at Wall St in 1653 under the orders of Governor Peter Stuyvesant that stretched from the Hudson to East River. After this project, in 1658 the slaves built a road connecting new Amsterdam with Manhattan’s second Dutch village, New Haarlem.
A Flourishing Slave Trade
The West India Company and Stuyvesant worked to promote the production of sugar cane which was a slave-intensive process. New York City became a major center for the North American slave trade.
For example, from 1711-1762 the city’s official slave market was located on a pier at Wall Street and the East River. The official slave market known as the Meal Market had several unofficial competitors as well. Slaves were sold or rented on a daily or weekly basis at these markets.
Under the Dutch, enslaved Africans even had hope of getting freedom eventually. For example, slaves often oversaw the work of Dutch absentee farmers.
The Dutch settlers of New York in 1644 even gave conditional freedom to 11 slaves and gave them farms in the part of Manhattan now between Canal Street and 34th street. These freed Africans still had to pay the West India Company in crops and livestock. Moreover, although the former slaves and their wives were freed, their children were kept as slaves. The freed slave parents were able to buy back their kids eventually.
The English rescinded the tight of free blacks to own land in Manhattan. Africans made up about 20% of the colonial population by the mid 18th century. In fact, Manhattan was second only to Charleston, South Carolina for its number of slaves. Slavery was eventually abolished in NY in 1827.
There was a supposed slave insurrection in 1741. Historians aren’t entirely sure what happened. The story is that poor whites and slaves joined forces to revolt and to kill all the white men. There were rewards offered for testimony which lead to mass hysteria. So many enslaved men were jailed there was no room in the jails to hold more. Eventually, 31 blacks and four whites were executed (conveniently near the African Burial Ground so you know where the blacks bodies went).
African Burial Ground Visitor Center
There are free tours of the site but it’s just as easy to visit independently.
The African Burial Ground visitor center is around the corner from the burial ground. The visitor center is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10-4. The museum is closed for Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.