A Colonial African Cemetery: New York City
New York's African Burying Ground was in use from around 1697 to 1794. When human remains were uncovered as the federal government was constructing an office building in 1991, it led to the discovery of the cemetery beneath the office towers of downtown Manhattan.
Foley Square in New York City is an area north of City Hall that is crowded with municipal and federal office buildings and courthouses. In 1987 the General Services Administration was looking to locate a new building that would provide overflow office space for federal agencies and back office space for the U.S. courthouse in Foley Square. The site they chose, just to the west of Foley Square between Broadway and Duane, Elk and Reade Streets, gave the feds more than they bargained for.
Between 1989, when the federal government initiated compliance requirements of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 to determine if the site merited a listing, and 1992, when President George Bush signed a law halting construction, 590 burials of colonial era African-Americans were discovered.
Archeological testing of the site of the Foley Square Federal Office Building done in June of 1991 had uncovered the first human remains. 390 burials were found on that site and excavated. An additional 200 were later found on the site of a four-story pavilion next door to the office building. In 1992 Mayor David N. Dinkins formed a task force on the African Burial Ground. In October of that year a federal steering committee was chartered to review proposals for what to do with the human remains and to develop a suitable memorial.
In 1993, the New York City Landmarks Commission designated the burying ground and its surrounding area, including City Hall and City Hall Park, the courthouses and other buildings, as the city's 59th historic district.
Howard University and John Milner Associates developed standard archeological and physical anthropological procedures, and standards for curating and storage of the remains, once a proper archeological excavation was done of the site. When Howard University completes its studies of the remains, they are to be re-interred in a memorial burying ground on what was the pavilion site. An African Burial Ground Interpretive Center for public information about the historic site will open in 2001 in the Federal Office Building at 290 Broadway.
So where did all these African-Americans come from? That's what the Interpretive Center will explain, the lives of 18th century free and enslaved blacks in New York City, as well as the scientific research conducted at Howard University.
African slaves were first brought to New Amsterdam by the Dutch in 1625 to work as farmers and builders, and in fur trading. The Dutch freed adult slaves in 1644 and granted them farmland in exchange for annual produce. The land the freed blacks farmed is in today's Greenwich Village. In addition, there were free blacks who were not ever owned by the Dutch West India Company and who were landowners of lots between Prince Street in SoHo and Astor Place. There were also free black seamen who lived in the colony.
A few hundred additional slaves were imported in the 1640s. Under the Dutch, black slaves attended and were married in the Dutch Reformed Church, and often buried with their Dutch owners. In 1664, the English took over and New Amsterdam became New York, and the relatively benign treatment New York blacks had received ended.
A public burying ground, next to where Trinity Church was established in 1697, already contained black graves. But the church declared that same year that blacks could no longer be buried in what was now the churchyard. The city introduced other restrictions on black slave burials, limiting the number of mourners and directing daylight hours for funerals.
The poor ground in where slaves were buried was moved to the Commons, an area that was common land in the Dutch era, and in part includes City Hall and City Hall Park. Just north of City Hall, on part of the original Commons, is where the African Burying Ground was discovered. The total number of interments in the burial ground is thought to be between 10,000 and 12,000. 92% of the remains found were African-American and the remainder are believed to be 19th century Irish immigrants from the Five Points area, which became Foley Square.