I started this series with the discovery and recovery of the African burial grounds found in 1991 in lower Manhattan. Then I discussed just one aspect that was uncovered with those grounds that illustrated the connection of the African American community to early medical education. Following that, we discussed the enslaved man, Grandison Harris, and his role in both sides of the previous story, and, now, I’d like to wrap this series up by going back to the burial grounds in NYC.
Once the discovery was made and construction halted, there were concerns with not only how to treat the grounds, but also the remains that were found. Carefully removed from the earth, the skeletal remains were sent to Howard University for analysis. The Montague Cobb Biological Anthropology Laboratory provided both cultural and biological insights in order to help create a more rounded view, history, and profile for the people that were found.
In addition to the bones, researchers uncovered gorgeous artifacts that offered a glimpse into traditions and symbols that many of the Africans had brought from their countries in Africa, and managed to maintain in their daily lives. Clothing, jewelry, cufflinks, and other trinkets buried with loved ones implied that tender care and thoughts of remembrance were practiced when these individuals were laid to rest. The burial grounds also revealed a history and culture that many thought had been long lost and forgotten due to slavery, oppression, and the subjugation of the early Africans. The discovery of this burial ground brought with it deep connections from the past to the present, and various public and private communities. In 1993, this sacred space had been declared a National Historic Landmark.
By October 2003, the remains that were sent to Howard University, were ready to make their final journey. At Howard University’s chapel, the research team, along with community members and students that had been following the progress of the story, performed a ceremony, the “Rites of Ancestral Return,” before sending the individuals back to NYC for burial.
On February 27, 2006, President George W. Bush proclaimed the African Burial Ground a national monument- making it ‘the nation’s largest national monument dedicated to African people. It has been called “the single-most-important, historic urban archaeological project undertaken in the United States.“‘
Today, the gorgeous memorial is surrounded and draped with symbolism and meaning. Surrounded by the urban, busy, and gritty landscapes of NYC, the memorial serves as a thoughtful and introspective reflection of the history of NYC, the making of America, the sacrifices of a people and community, and a bridge between two continents.
Within the memorial’s visitors center artist, Frank Bender, created bronze sculptures based on forensic facial reconstructions of some of the remains, allowing visitors to look into the faces of some of the enslaved and early African Americans. Amazing life-like scenes made by Studio EIS, depict funerals that may have happened on the grounds where visitors now stand.
I wanted to visit the memorial in order to provide a more personal experience, but due to the inclimate weather in NYC, the memorial is currently closed. I’ll have to wait until Spring to provide the trip experience.
I hope you have enjoyed this 4- part series. My goal was to illustrate the interdisciplinary nature of anthropology, the importance of community being actively involved in the understanding of what it is to be human and social beings, and to highlight that our lives do not exist in a vaccum. Culture and history is made every day and in everything that we do. The goal may not always be about preservation. Sometimes it is about understanding and making connections for how and why we develop and maintain ideas, practices, beliefs, and entire powerful cities!
Please feel free to continue to research about whatever aspects of this series caught your eye, and share your findings in the comments, or shoot me an email!