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The Story Of A Memorial: The African Burial Ground In New York

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

In 1991, the federal government started construction on a new building in Lower Manhattan. But a little digging revealed something unexpected - the remains of 419 black people buried there since the 16- and 1700s. That discovery kicked off a fight between forces who wanted the building to go up and communities who wanted to honor the dead. Those communities eventually won, and now you can visit the African Burial Ground Memorial in Lower Manhattan.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This week, we're looking at the stories behind the statues, plaques and memorials that blend into the background for many people. Michael Blakey is a professor of anthropology, Africana studies and American studies at the College of William & Mary. He was also principal investigator for the analysis of the African Burial Ground remains. And when I spoke with him earlier, I started by asking him, who were the people buried at that site?

MICHAEL BLAKEY: They were almost entirely enslaved. Perhaps 95% of Africans in New York City from the late 17th through the 18th centuries were enslaved to do the work of building the city.

CHANG: Which is something I think a lot of Americans don't understand - a lot of Americans generally don't think of New York as one of the capitals of American chattel slavery. How would you describe New York city's role in slavery?

BLAKEY: It was a thriving economic center as a village that expanded to become a city which was based essentially on slavery and the products that the enslaved produced - and the trade of the enslaved people themselves. So the New York - New York was perhaps second only to Charleston, S.C., in its involvement in the slave trade. All 13 colonies enslaved Africans until the War of Independence began to create emancipation in most of those. Emancipation did not come in New York until 1827. The idea we have of a free North versus an enslaved South is something that really was quite consciously developed as - what I think David Blight calls it - the emancipatory narrative after the Civil War distinguished America, you know, as a freedom-loving place in a war that was fought for unification but ultimately became also associated with the freeing of the - of enslaved people in the South.

CHANG: And it's important to remember New York City's role in the chattel slavery system. And going back to the remains of these individuals that were found, I mean, you led a team that examined those remains. How did you even begin to figure out who these individuals were?

BLAKEY: Because we were interdisciplinary, we understood that these were from specific cultures of Ashanti or Igbo or Tuareg. Some came from perhaps Madagascar. But you know, DNA is actually very sloppy. It gives you a broad range of possibility. And so it's with all the other kinds of artifacts that we could narrow down to the extent possible the origins of the people buried there.

CHANG: And could you conclude whether all these people were indeed slaves, or were some of them free? I mean, do you have any idea of the personal stories of the people who were buried there?

BLAKEY: We can only know the general frequency of freed people there. We have interesting stories of freed people in the - in 1788 defending the African Burial Ground against desecration during the doctors' riots. But we don't know which individuals buried in the cemetery were those individuals.

CHANG: What do you think this memorial means, especially in 2020?

BLAKEY: Memorials are part of what it means to be human. And during slavery, the burial of the dead was very important - keenly important for Africans and African Americans whose humanity - it was very humanity was contested, as I suggested. There have been changes, for sure, in the last 200 years. But as we see in 2020, there have also been continuities of the disregard for Black lives. So these memorials and the African Burial Ground is a memorial that celebrates not just death but the sanctity of Black life and the importance of our history.

CHANG: Michael Blakey is a professor of anthropology, Africana studies and American studies at the College of William & Mary.

Thank you very much for being with us today.

BLAKEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.