A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
In 1991, a building project unearthed the remains of 427 Africans beneath a parking lot just two blocks north of New York's City Hall, bringing the colonial city's lost African Burial Ground to the attention of the world. Accompanying this discovery were the protestations of the African American community, which felt that the issue was handled irresponsibly and insensitively, and was outraged by the city's failure to offer them any control over their heritage (see "Bones and Bureaucrats," March/April 1993). The controversy surrounding that find continues today, after more than eight years and further discoveries of bones in the area. For many African Americans, these bones are a valuable part of their ancestral history, reminding us that New York once had a slave population second only to that of Charleston, South Carolina, and that Africans, free and enslaved, have played a significant part in New York's history since Manhattan was first settled in the seventeenth century. A recent restoration project at City Hall Park resulted in the discovery of graves of disputed origin (see "Cover-up at City Hall?" September/October 1999). With these bones, the anger and tension surrounding the 1991 excavations have resurfaced, raising questions as to whether these graves represent the far reaches of the African Burial Ground or the burials of residents of an eighteenth-century almshouse. City officials have been reticent regarding the find, and the city agency overseeing the excavation enveloped the site with a green tarp as protection against inquisitive eyes. Meanwhile, questions about the identities of the bodies and doubts about the city's handling of the situation abound. Foremost in everyone's mind is the history and future of these bones, and to what degree the public will be permitted to determine their fate.
Bones of New York's Past
Human remains found under City Hall Park send echoes of a forgotten New York and leave some asking if the city is trying to silence the dead.
Every now and then, when a water main breaks in Lower Manhattan or when ground is broken for a new building, the bones of those who lived and died in colonial New York resurface, and today's New Yorkers get a quiet brush with a past they had literally walked over. This happened, though few people seem to know about it, during the recent renovations of City Hall Park, when the remains of more than 70 people were uncovered. Most of these bones are thought to belong to the residents of New York's first almshouse. Opened in 1736, the almshouse was a homeless shelter, jail, and workhouse rolled into one. Next to it was a fenced-in cemetery, so that the poor could be near the almshouse, isolated in death as they were in life. The cemetery opened in 1757, and was filled by 1785. In 1803, construction work began on a new City Hall, which was erected on the site of the demolished almshouse. A new courthouse (known as the Tweed Courthouse) was later built, just north of City Hall, and the area was transformed into the pristine seat of city government. Walkways were groomed, trees were planted. For a centerpiece, an elaborate fountain was built. The forsaken graves of the have-nots vanished.
It has taken over 200 years--and, ironically, another effort to spruce up City Hall Park--for those burials to become important, and controversial. The debate centers around the city's actions and whether or not the bones can add to our knowledge of New York City history. Some of the African American leaders who fought in 1991 to save a remnant of the centuries-old African Burial Ground believe that the bones at City Hall Park may be from the southernmost part of the segregated black cemetery. Maps of the city from the 1700s do not make the boundaries explicitly clear, but it is widely agreed that the northern margin of the cemetery was at Duane Street, only two blocks from where the bones were found at City Hall Park. The city has done little to address this concern, which has increased suspicions that it either has something to hide or just doesn't care. While the city maintains that the bones are of the almshouse residents, and probably also of Revolutionary War soldiers, a concrete answer may lie in genetic testing.
Construction began in late 1998 to give City Hall Park a complete makeover in time for the new millennium. It was the job of George Vellonakis, a Parks Department designer, to figure out how to fix the broken up pavement, restore the dying greens, and add more lighting, among other major repairs. About 25 archaeologists, most contracted from a Virginia-based company called Parsons Engineering, went in first to locate and, if necessary, salvage whatever human remains and artifacts construction might affect. Bones started showing up right away. Beneath City Hall Park's broken paths, lying next to the brittle roots of its rotting trees, were toes and skulls and partial jawbones--some just six inches below the surface.
By February, they had found three undisturbed burials in the northwest corner of the park at Broadway and Chambers Street. Over the following months, they found more bones in the park's northeast corner, to the east of the Tweed Courthouse and a few yards from a Brooklyn Bridge subway entrance. They uncovered about 25 primary graves, mostly of women and children, which were facing all directions, and secondary deposits of bones: partial skeletons of at least 12 infants in one area and three areas with about 12 adults each. By the time the excavation ended on July 26, the archaeologists had collected myriad small bone fragments that were scattered throughout the earth. The exact number of people represented by the remains will only be determined when the bones are studied.
When archaeologists came across primary graves, they simply marked off the site with string and orange ribbons so that construction workers would know what not to disturb and George Vellonakis could redesign that portion of the park. By not digging deeper, the excavators may have missed additional burials. Even during colonial times burial space was limited, so graves were stacked on top of each other. Some City Hall Park graves are likely to have several layers of burials. The infants' remains and the clusters of adults' bones were believed to be in secondary burials, meaning they were buried someplace else first. Because they were not in their original resting place, the commission allowed archaeologists to dig up the remains and ship them to the Smithsonian to be analyzed by Marilyn London, a physical anthropologist. London will perform what is called a baseline analysis, measuring the skull, pelvis, and other bones to determine the age, sex, stature, possible diseases or birth defects, and, perhaps most consequential, the ancestry of an individual. London's final report is promised for December 2000.
The Giuliani administration controlled information about the excavation and burials extremely tightly. Everyone involved in the renovation project--from the construction workers, to archaeologists, to the Landmarks Preservation Commission--was ordered to refer all calls about the bones to the mayor's office. The mayor's office then forwarded calls to George Vellonakis, who preferred to speak more about the park itself than about the bodies beneath it. The city's cloak of secrecy revealed itself not only through the suppression of seemingly benign public information, but also through a green tarp stretched against a nine-foot-tall fence around the site that prevented would-be onlookers from getting even a glimpse of the excavation. Except for sporadic statements to the press, the city has offered little on the matter.
Deputy Mayor Rudy Washington, who was in charge of the renovation project, may have wanted to prevent the same public outrage and media blitz that occurred in 1991 when construction workers began to install a 34-story federal building at 209 Broadway and churned up the bodies of free and enslaved blacks from the eighteenth-century African Burial Ground. Now, many of the community leaders who fought for national landmark status for the African Burial Ground and $5.1 million in federal money for Howard University to study the remains found there are calling for the city to genetically test the bones at City Hall Park. They want to know if those bones in the park are not just from residents of the almshouse, but also from African people.
"The seat of New York government is resting on the backs of blacks who built the city centuries ago," says Sherrill D. Wilson, an urban anthropologist and director of the Office of Public Information & Interpretation of the African Burial Ground Project. "If it was anybody else, it would be considered sort of a Holocaust. But it's ignored, swept under the rug." According to Wilson, maps show that colonial blacks were buried in a cemetery that covered five-and-a-half to six acres. Since Duane Street is believed to be the northern boundary of the African Burial Ground, with the site of Collect Pond about a block to its east and Broadway to its west, Wilson believes there is only one direction in which the graveyard could have extended: south, into City Hall Park. In fact, Con Ed workers installing a transformer just north of the Tweed Courthouse turned up humans remains in 1993. These bones have yet to be adequately studied, and whether or not they are from the African Burial Ground is unknown.
Colonial New York's palisade cut across what is today the northwest corner of City Hall Park, and the African Burial Ground was just outside the palisade. Of all the bones revealed or recovered during the City Hall Park excavations, those found in the park's northwest corner are most likely from the African Burial Ground. Nevertheless, the Commission would not allow the three undisturbed skeletons uncovered there to be exhumed; under a 1998 protocol undisturbed burials were not to be excavated. Marilyn London of the Smithsonian had no other choice but to do a preliminary baseline analysis on the bones while they were still in the earth. She told the press that the skull morphology of two appeared to be European. The third was too damaged to make a determination. The Commission is often criticized for placing scientists in awkward positions, so that archaeological ethics are stifled for the sake of good politics. "The Landmarks Preservation Commission bends with political opportunity," said Michael Blakey. A physical anthropologist and biological archaeologist at Howard University, Blakey is currently overseeing genetic research of the bones from the African Burial Ground. "They don't want to have to account to the African American community about the remains. The morphological assessment [that took place] is the sloppiest form of research and it's full of error. The city should go ahead and spend the $1,000 per individual for DNA testing. That is what's needed because there may be Africans in that burial ground. Why should we have to fight for the right to know if these are our ancestral remains?"
To Wilson, Blakey, and others, New York is faced with a mystery that it can either ignore or embrace. Embracing it may mean spending a little more money on testing the bones, since they consider the baseline analysis to be a faulty and somewhat primitive procedure for determining race. This view is controversial, even among specialists in the field. Scientists with backgrounds in forensics tend to trust baseline analysis because the measurements of the bones of a murder victim, for example, can be statistically compared to those of people of varying races. This form of examination can be cost efficient, saving district attorney offices a lot of money. Scientists with backgrounds in archaeology, however, generally want to test beyond a baseline analysis.
Scientists can get a second and third opinion about their analysis of human bones by using a variety of methods. Stable isotopic analysis costs about $200 per specimen and can detect where a person grew up based on nutrients in the bone that come from certain types of food. This test can determine that a person spent most of his life in New York, but cannot, for example, necessarily show whether the person was of Irish or Cuban descent. Depending on preservation, DNA research can determine the ancestry of a bone fragment as small as a fingernail. The drawback is that it is expensive and must always be compared to other DNA to be conclusive. It can determine that a person is African, but it cannot tell from which country or region unless matched with DNA from populations there. Without such testing, at least for some, the question remains: Who are these dead people beneath City Hall Park? Are they the remains of Revolutionary War soldiers, impoverished residents of the first almshouse, or black slaves?
"The history of Africans in New York is not less important than that of any other people," says Wilson, who also questions why a city can spend $22 million to revamp a park but not pay out the $100,000 she estimates is needed to do DNA research. "The people of New York are being duped. Most people think black people came to New York between World War I and World War II to get away from the Klan in the South. The first person to [settle] on Manhattan Island was an African, that's in Dutch history. It was 1623 and he was among the founders of New Amsterdam." Since slavery didn't begin until 1626, she continues, "that tells me that there were Africans who came here of their own volition. This is not taught in schools that all people pay taxes for."
New York is layered with history, stretching back to Indian occupation long before the Dutch took over in the early seventeenth century. Staff at the Landmarks Preservation Commission are constantly sorting out what deserves to be named a historical property and what does not. They, as much as cab drivers and bike messengers, have to grapple with the confines of an island that is only 11 miles long and, at its broadest point, just two miles wide. The commission is always treading on sensitive ground, and the argument surrounding the bones at City Hall Park is no exception. The dispute over what to do with the bones, however, was not just voiced by the black leaders involved with the African Burial Ground. The archaeologists who excavated the park clashed with mayor's office and the commission on several occasions. In the beginning, the scientists made up fliers to inform the public about their mission, but city officials told them not to distribute them. Because it was a salvage operation, their mandate was only to dig in areas where the construction plan involved going into the ground, which meant that many potential burials were left out of the excavation. The protocol stipulating that intact burials be left in the ground meant that any stacked burials were left uninvestigated.
"When you find bones, you don't just turn your back on them," said Christopher Moore of the Schomberg Center and the Landmarks Preservation Commission, as well as a historian at the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture. Moore can trace his lineage back to free blacks in Dutch New Amsterdam. "It was my view that the majority of the bodies should deteriorate and become dust. If you take everything out, then you'll have nothing left. But it was important for everyone to be honest about how we felt. These bones exists, but I think you're judged by God on how you treat them." Once the analysis of the bones from secondary deposits is completed, the city says it will re-inter them at City Hall Park. After wrangling for weeks about how to memorialize the dead, the mayor's office finally decided to fence-in a triangular section of the original burial ground. The city will also dedicate a plaque at the site; it will serve as a collective tombstone for the poor of the city's first almshouse, if that is who the bones belong to, informing the public about souls no longer forgotten. Beneath the preserved area, covered with green grass and planted with small azaleas, will be at least 20 burials, and there are at least ten graves under the bluestone path that now leads to the small cemetery.
Preserving the burials beneath the path entailed technology similar to that used to install floors inside skyscrapers. Construction workers put plywood boards six inches away from the four sides of the grave, then filled the makeshift coffin with soil before covering its top with another plywood board. Next they put plastic on top of the board and laid grids of steel reinforcing bars (rebars), on top of the plastic. They placed sonotubes--concrete molded into vertical tubes--into the ground, perpendicular to the rebars. Quick-drying cement was poured over the metal to make the pavement. "The burial doesn't support the weight of the concrete," explains an archaeologist at the commission. At least now pedestrians will know that they are treading on top of graves. Many thousands of people had walked on an asphalt path in the park that had burials as shallow as six to eight inches below it. George Vellonakis, the park's designer, made the new path a little narrower than originally planned to make the preserved cemetery a little bigger.
At lunch time on August 12, 1999, a lone yellow bulldozer poured heaps of dirt over the plastic-covered plywood boxes that enclosed burials. The crewman behind the wheel probably never imaged that he would one day perform the duties of a cemetery worker. Every now and then, fellow construction workers would stop by to watch, then drift away. Meanwhile, pedestrians passed by, oblivious to what was taking place even though the city had removed the green tarps that used to conceal the site.
On December 13, Landmarks Preservation Commission head Jennifer Raab, along with two Smithsonian physical anthropologists, Marilyn London and Doug Owsley, made an informational presentation to a select group of community leaders who make up the African Burial Ground Working Group. According to the commision's press office, the members are part of a "long-standing advisory group" that will help make decisions concerning the bones at City Hall Park. The meeting was designed to enlighten community leaders on the basic issues surrounding the fate of the bones from City Hall Park and the reliability of tests that may be done on them. There were fewer than a dozen attendees, including Ayo Harrington, chair of Friends of the African Burial Ground and on the staff of city council member Bill Perkin's office; Howard University's Michael Blakey (who was invited by Harrington); African Burial Ground steering committee member Miriam Frances; Gina Stahlnecker, special assistant to State Senator David Patterson; and two anthropologists.
The meeting centered around what the Smithsonian is doing with the bones taken from City Hall Park. Attendees were told that a baseline analysis is to be conducted on the remains. There will be an inventory and metrical analysis of the bones. In addition, the researchers will look for bone pathology, taking X rays, examining teeth, and searching for signs of disease. Marilyn London has projected that her portion of the work on the bones, which may yield valuable clues about who these people are, will not be done until March. Stahlnecker reports that "everybody agreed for April [to hold the next meeting] since research almost always runs behind. Outreach to the community will be in spring or the summer. The only decision that was made was to meet again."
Blakey feels that the work on which Owsley and London are embarking goes beyond standard research and population identification. He explains that a baseline analysis is a study, not just an inventory, and as such it requires community contribution or a public hearing. Ayo Harrington, who said prior to the December meeting she didn't even know remains had been removed from the park last summer, voiced great disappointment with the meeting. She said she questions the ability of the Landmark Preservation Commission to reach a sound decision without "some sort of public outreach to the community, especially when members of a group that is supposed to be in the know don't even know what's going on." "I don't have a position on where the bones should go," she explains. "It's the process. Landmarks is a public agency with public money and it is causing people to distrust. It didn't seem to make sense to have a public forum until after the preliminary report."
According to Harrington, 11 skulls were recovered from the secondary burials. Blakey is extremely opposed to testing these for morphological traits of race because the margin of error could be very high considering there are only 11 skulls and portions of bones. Although Raab is assuming the bones are Caucasian because of the proximity of the burials to the almshouse, Blakey feels that such an assumption is unwarranted.
Meanwhile, several hundred thousand artifacts (including a wide range of ceramics), animal bones, and shells recovered during the excavations await study. Before any analysis can be done, Parsons must submit a plan and budget for approval. The material spans the entire eighteenth century, a period not archaeologically well known in New York, and into the early nineteenth. Most of the material likely stems from the jail, almshouse, and barracks that were in the area, offering an opportunity to compare diets at the different institutional settings with what we know from domestic refuse deposits from this period. Few artifacts were found with the burials, mostly some buttons and remains of shroud pins. None of the artifacts in the secondary burials have a good context, and thus are not likely to be of help in identifying those people. Any artifacts in the undisturbed burials were reburied along with the remains.
For now, identifying the bones is in the hands of the Smithsonian anthropologists and the archaeologists at Parsons. Those outside this immediate group must be asking themselves if their input will ever be asked for in a serious fashion any time soon or if they'll only be consulted after the fact. ARCHAEOLOGY will follow the story; look for an update following the meeting planned for April.
Marilyn Anderson is a reporter at People magazine, a freelance writer, and a student at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.