The African Burial Ground is a burial ground that can be found in New York City. It is notable because it is the first burial ground for both free and enslaved Africans to have been excavated in North America, thus making it a very important part of African-American history and one of New York’s best places to visit. Moreover, it should be mentioned that the initial excavation was a much-covered event by the media of the 1990s, meaning that it has had a considerable influence on the perception of African-American archaeology as a whole.
How Did the African Burial Ground in New York City Come Into Existence?
In short, chattel slavery was introduced to what would become New York City by the Dutch West India Company. For those who are curious, the Dutch West India Company was a Dutch chartered company that operated in West Africa as well as in the Americas, meaning that it played a very important in the Dutch colonization of the Americas. In particular, the Dutch West India Company is remembered in the United States because of its involvement with New Netherland, which was a stretch of Dutch-claimed territory that included what would become New York City.
Initially, the Dutch West India Company had sought to encourage Dutch immigration to the region to serve as a source of labor. However, this was a failure because while there were Dutch people who were willing to head to the Americas, most of them were much more interested in the much more lucrative fur trade because they wanted to make enough money so that they could head home in style. As a result, the Dutch West India Company eventually decided to use African slaves to meet its labor needs in New Netherland, particularly since it was already using African slaves in other Dutch colonies in other parts of the world.
It is important to note that the Dutch system of chattel slavery wasn’t identical to the system of chattel slavery that is most familiar to most Americans. Certainly, it was very brutal, seeing as how the African slaves were indeed taken from their homes by force before being bought and sold like products rather than human beings. However, it is curious to note that the Dutch system of chattel slavery provided slaves with certain rights as well as certain ways to shed that status.
For starters, the African slaves were entitled to trials. Records of criminal charges being brought against them were very rare, which suggests that anything less serious than a capital crime was handled by the owners as well as the overseers. However, when one of the African slaves were accused of a capital crime, they were entitled to testify in their own defense. Moreover, they weren’t supposed to be tortured, though perhaps unsurprisingly considering the awful state of justice in those times, testimonies extracted via torture was still considered to be admissible in the legal proceedings. Besides this, the African slaves had various other rights such as the ability to own movable goods, the ability to make money by hiring themselves out in their spare time, and the ability to bring lawsuits against not just other slaves but also free individuals.
With that said, the African slaves were also capable of securing their freedom under certain circumstances. In short, what happened was that slaves would reach a half-free, half-slave status after having served for a sufficient period of time. There was no regulation on the matter, meaning that the exact amount of time saw huge divergences from case to case. Once having become half-free, half-slave, these individuals picked up further rights, with a particularly important one being the ability to buy land. Eventually, it was possible for these half-free, half-slave individuals to regain their full freedom, meaning that as time passed, a free African community sprang up in what would become New York City.
When the English took over, matters became worse for the African slaves because the English system of chattel slavery turned out to have been even more brutal. The slaves lost a lot of their rights under the Dutch. Furthermore, the slaves lost a lot of their legal protections, with an excellent example being a ban on arbitrary legal punishment that winded up being rescinded. On top of this, matters became worse for the free Africans as well, as shown by how black people lost the right to be buried in the city’s burial grounds when Trinity Church gained control of them. Due to this, black people had to be buried elsewhere, thus resulting in what would become known as the African Burial Ground.
Over time, the African-American community in New York City lost its connection to that earliest part of its existence, which in turn, meant that the African Burial Ground was lost for a time. In part, this happened because the African-American community was overshadowed by successive waves of immigration, which resulted in the city becoming a much more diverse place. However, it should also be noted that it saw a huge influx of new members because of the Great Migration from the South in the 20th century. As such, the African Burial Ground wasn’t rediscovered until the 1990s, which was when the GSA came upon it while conducting an archaeological survey in preparation for the construction of a new federal office building.
Why Should You Visit the African Burial Ground in New York City?
There are various reasons why people might be interested in visiting the African Burial Ground in New York City. For instance, there are some people who might want to pay their respects to one of the earliest parts of the American experience, which has received minimal interest until very recent times. Meanwhile, other people might be more fascinated by the sheer historical value of the place, both because it has provided us with much information about how these people lived and because the finding has spurred a wave of interest in African-American archaeology.