Part Three of the Black History Month Series: From NYC to St. Helena, the Graves of African Diaspora Speak

This is part three (final) of the 2019 Black History Month series on two important sites- the African Burial Grounds in NYC and a tiny island called St. Helena. Sorry, it was delayed, but Black History need not be confined to a single month anyway.


The northern regions of the United States were long viewed and talked about as the cradle of hope and freedom for Africans in America who had been enslaved in the South. The North versus the South.

The North is often written about as this place where education, philosophy, and moral goodness prevailed. While the South was full of hypocritical religious zealots, witless, cruel, racist, and sexist bigots. This wasn’t completely true. While northern states are often home to more liberal, progressive, outspoken cities, it wouldn’t take much digging to uncover northern bigotry. In the cities of the North, slavery, and slavery- driven profits thrived. Part of this may have to do with how slavery existed and then changed as the Dutch began losing power to the British, but that is a subject for a different day/ post.

Illustration of the New York slave market. (Corbis)
Illustration of the New York slave market. (Corbis)

That said, as a child raised in New York City, I rarely heard about slavery in the North. Not in classrooms, movies, books, or museums. In fact, I finished high school in South Carolina and didn’t hear about it there, either. This may be because these histories were so well erased and the narratives changed. What was once the sacred place of an African Burial Ground was covered over and forgotten under the streets of the New York City Financial District until 1991 when a construction project led to one of the most important historical finds in New York history and allowed the African community of New York an opportunity to tell and learn of their stories.

Like the residents of St. Helena Island, a construction project on the island of Manhattan would force New Yorkers and America’s North to reconcile its own role and hand in slavery and oppression. I’ve written about the NY African Burial Grounds quite a bit on the blog so I won’t spend too much time discussing its discovery, history, and meaning. I will note that, to date, it is the largest archaeological cemetery population of enslaved Africans in North America.

Instead, I wanted to spend some time examining some of the graves and burials found in the cemeteries of the NY ABG and St. Helena Island. There are a few similarities between the two.

As with St. Helena Island, there are thousands of Africans and African- Americans buried in the NY African Burial Ground, but only a portion of the individuals was excavated. In St. Helena, there were a little under 330 full skeletons excavated and, in the NY burial ground, there were 419 excavated (only 301 suitable for demographic study), examined and analyzed and reinterred in a national monument in the same area.

It should be noted that the individuals excavated from the NY African Burial Grounds “constitute the largest colonial archaeological sample of any ethnic group available for study in the Americas and the earliest African cemetery in the United States” (Blakey et. al. 10).

The samples represented in each excavation, along with historical documents are archives, act as proxy groups for the whole population.

One of the first things that stuck out to me in both groups was the high percentage of children represented in the population.

When examining the remains of the NY African Burial Ground, researchers learned that children under the age of 15 made up about 43%. It was also found that “children under 12…experienced a high mortality rate and developmental delays caused by malnutrition and disease. Pre-revolutionary New York, which had more enslaved Africans than any Colonial settlement except Charleston, S.C., preferred child slaves because they were inexpensive and unlikely to rebel, the Howard historians noted” (Greene).

As mentioned in part two of this series, in the case of St. Helena, the percentage of liberated African youth (fetus- adolescent <18 years) buried was even higher. “Osteological analysis shows that 83% of the bodies were those of children, teenagers or young adults” (University of Bristol). Slave traders often targeted children and youth in hopes that, should they survive the journey, they would last longer in slavery. The average age represented in the group was 12 years.

Within the osteological analysis reports of both groups, there is recorded evidence consistent with disease and malnutrition- scurvy, rickets, and cribra orbitalia. Analyzing and comparing the age and health of individuals found at both sites give us strong evidence of the ways in which treatment and environment over time impact the quality and longevity (or lack thereof) human life. “Breaking down core elements of the enslavement process and the oppressive governance and exploitation of slave life and labor highlights how the system relentlessly undermined physical, psychological, and emotional health. The initial acts of capture, incarceration, human commodification, and forced transportation all weakened health” and these systems continued to erode the African community and group over time. The NY burial grounds appear to indicate that lives did not improve even for those born into slavery who may not have had to endure the horrors of the transatlantic trade (Kenny).

Another interesting detail found in both sites was evidence of culturally modified teeth, or CMT. These are teeth that are understood to have been purposefully changing in some way- filing, chipping, etc. for beauty or ornamentation. This is a practice that has been shown to exist all around the world, but given the populations being examined, it can be aligned with the evidence as a marker that may be indicative of ethnic affiliations.

In a 2004 interview with BBC, Dr. Michael Blakey, the anthropologist who eventually led the research and reburial efforts of the NYABG, mentioned being shocked when he and his team found a skull whose teeth had been modified.

“…that stunned me because that is very rare.”

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Image via The New York African Burial Ground Vol.1

At the time, there had been on 9 known skeletons in the Americas who had been found with filed teeth, but in the African burial grounds the team had found almost 30! Researchers suggested that the filed teeth found in this particular population could be understand as pretty strong evidence of ethnic affiliation. “Preliminary studies of teeth from individuals buried in the NYABG confirm that… most individuals with culturally modified teeth appear to have spent their first decades somewhere in Africa. Strontium isotopes also suggest that a few individuals may have spent time in the Caribbean” before being brought to NYC (263).

Image result for st helena dental modification
Modified teeth Image via University of Bristol and Andrew Pearson

In the osteological reports and findings of the individuals examined on St. Helena’s there is a record of individuals who also had culturally modified teeth. We know that these people were boarded onto ships in African ports, but never made it the Americas or the Caribbean. While the same dental analysis has not been completed on the individuals on St. Helena’s, I still believe this is a fantastic comparative note!


Grave Goods

Lastly, I wanted to briefly discuss some of the material objects found in the graves at both sites. Grave goods are the things that are buried with the body. These items can sometimes carry significant meaning. They may indicate status, tradition, belief, and/ or be a marker of a certain time period for an individual.

For the individuals on St. Helena Island, I previously mentioned the tags that were likely some indicator of being enslaved. Researchers did recover some other goods. The recovery of any goods from this population is pretty significant because there would have been a time after they were enslaved that they were made to strip all of their clothing and any items that they had with them before being packed into ships. However, Dr. Pearson noted that they found a large number of beads, some textiles and ribbons.

Some of the finds from the graves
The grave goods of St. Helena Excavation Image via The Guardian, 8th March 2012

The blue beads found in St. Helena reminded me of a very specific NY burial ground excavation. “When the archaeological team at the New York African Burial Ground disinterred the remains of the woman later designated as Burial 340 in 1991, the waist beads and hourglass-shaped, filed incisors that had adorned her in life remained to define her culturally more than two centuries after death.”

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Image via The Archaeology of the New York African Burial Ground vol. 5

Both sites provide interesting details about African diaspora affected by the same institution of slavery at two separate times in two different geographic locations. These sites reveal information beyond slavery. There are other similar sites that offer a wealth of information that provide the untold and erased histories and valuable data and insights of African diaspora- sites like the African cemetery in Campeche, Mexico and Sugar Land in Texas. These sites also highlight an opportunity to iterate on and build more dynamic and complex models for collecting and analyzing the data of whole populations pushed to the margins and histories, narratives, traditions, and people were erased.



Blakey, Michael, et al. The Archaeology of the New York African Burial Ground. Howard University Press, vol. 1 and vol. 5 2009.

Greene, Marcia Slacum. “No Rest for African Burial Ground.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 27 Aug. 2002,

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