Thu | Nov 15, 2018

African burial ground in NYC stirs emotions

Published:Sunday | August 24, 2014 | 12:00 AM
An African slave at work.
Douglas Massenburg
Exhibit of domestic worker.

Dr Glenville Ashby, Contributor

In 1808, the Reverend Absalom Jones intoned the unforgettable words: "Remember the rock from whence we were sown."  Today, memories of a regrettable period of black history come alive, daily.

It was as if a period in time was frozen, to be remembered, and relived. The life-sized wax figures of a family gathered to bury its own, including that of a child, is evidenced by the size of one of the coffins. Their harrowed faces and grief unmistakably epitomise an unthinkable tragedy.

But there is more. Shackles are on display. They could be handled by visitors. It is a cold and numbing experience.

And the words of a slave trader and slaves, respectively, are etched in an area depicting the sordid tools of submission.

"These misfortunes are, I think, insufficient to make me repent coming to Africa," wrote Dr William Chancellor, 1750.

And the haunting words of Venture Smith, 1789: "The very first salute I had from them was a violent blow to the head with the forepart of a gun. I then had a rope put around my neck."

And finally those of Mahommah Baquaqua, 1854, "Another man came with a hot iron and branded us the same way they would the heads of barrels."

Large exhibits

There are large exhibits of slaves toiling as carpenters, basket weavers and masons. This is a narrative seldom told. But park ranger Douglas Massenburg's articulation is passionate as he relates how lower Manhattan and the well-known Wall Street district were built by slaves.

He elaborates: "We think of labouring in the fields when we think about slavery. We also think that people went to Africa and randomly captured slaves. New York slavery was nothing like that. That's a misconception when you look at the birth of New York (which was then New Amsterdam). Slavery was systematic.

"Skilled labour was needed - masons, carpenters, tradesmen, in general. Slave traders knew exactly where in Africa to get them. For example, they looked for basket weavers in Mali and carpenters in Ghana."

He adds that at one point there was mass discontent among Europeans in New York because of high unemployment as slaves built forts, roads and homes.

"Wall Street got its name from a protective wall that ran from the Hudson River to the East River. It was built by the slaves in 1653 (for the Dutch) against the British and American Indians attacks. In fact, later on, there was an actual Wall Street slave market here, a place where you could buy, sell or hire out Africans."

The history behind the museum and the nearby soaring monument is well documented. The remains of slaves were discovered during excavation of a parking lot for the construction of a new federal building. "It is called the single most important archaeological find in some quarters," Massenburg tells me.

"It was known that a large African burial ground, over six acres with 15,000 slaves, former slaves and their descendants were buried somewhere beneath the subways, the streets, the parking lots," he explains.

"There were cemeteries dating back to 1712 with the label 'negro burial'. But it was believed that with all the construction the cemetery was completely obliterated."


Massenburg points out that the remains were not revealed to the people initially. They were wrapped in newspapers and placed in cardboard boxes and stored in the basement of a gym in a Bronx university. But the information eventually leaked, leading to protests.

He calls the circumstances of the discovery "perfect", because such finds by the federal government demanded their procurement and protection. He later mentions of the ensuing congressional hearings and the decision to build a museum and erect a monument under the purview of the National Park Service.

"There were objections, as some wanted the area untouched and simply memorialised by an eternal flame," he admitted, though he did not share such sentiments. "All the remains were carefully re-interred and the museum and monument have grown in relevance and importance on a national and global level," he reveals.

Visitors in the tens of thousands now stream through the multimedia museum annually.

Massenburg is moved by his work.

"This is the best medium to honour the ancestors, to tell their story, their trials and triumphs. There is no resentment. What we have here is sacred and so many of us forget the spiritual side to all this. I feel honoured that I am carrying out the message of my ancestors. I really believe I am here to perform their will," he says, with a show of humility.

Dr Glenville Ashby is a social critic and president of Global Interfaith CouncilFeedback: or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby