The Schomburg Center holds the records of the Federal Steering Committee, which recommended to Congress and the U.S. General Services Administration how to proceed with the discovery of the African Burial Ground. Photo: African Burial Ground National Monu
What began as a project to construct a new federal office building unearthed the earliest and largest known burial ground in the U.S. for enslaved and free Africans.
As construction began at 290 Broadway in 1991, preliminary archaeological research uncovered a burial ground 30 feet below street level containing over 15,000 intact skeletal remains and graves of free and enslaved Africans and African Americans who lived and worked in colonial New York. Then-Mayor David Dinkins created the Mayor’s Committee on the African Burial Ground to advise on how to move forward with the discovery. The group was later phased out to form the Federal Steering Committee. Its goal was to advise Congress and the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), which provides workplace construction, management, and preservation of government buildings, on how to proceed with activities at the site. The Schomburg Center holds the records of the Federal Steering Committee—and there is also a personal connection. Schomburg volunteer Dr. Patricia Leonard was one of the activists who attended many of the committee meetings. Also, Schomburg volunteer Cyril Innis Jr. has donated his time and worked at the site since the early 1990s. Below, they reflect on their work with the African Burial Ground 30 years after its discovery.
“These bones are bones of the shoulders we stand on to this day whomever we are,” Cyril said. "It’s a sacred place. It’s the last place that our people have a chance to rest from all the hardships we have endured in this racist, systemic country."
Cyril—who prefers to use his first name in this article—is a Black Panther Party alumnus. He became involved with the African Burial Ground because of his work with the Ghana Nkwanta Project, which owns and manages land in Ghana. Its founder, Queen Mother Adunni, is one of Cyril’s mentors. She suggested he take part in creating recommendations for New York City and the federal government.
Leonard, who has traveled throughout the African Diaspora visiting countries such as Benin, Ethiopia, Ghana, Tanzania, St. Lucia, and Swaziland many years before the burial ground was discovered, said it was "a no-brainer to become involved, particularly since this history emerged in my own city and was never taught in school."
Former Schomburg Center Director Howard Dodson chaired the Federal Steering Committee. He held discussions in the Center’s American Negro Theatre from 1992–94, which were open to the community. Leonard also participated in peaceful demonstrations as part of the grassroots efforts to get the GSA to negotiate with the Committee and respond to their action plan for the burial ground.
The combined efforts of activists, historians, archeologists, educators, and community members led to a halt in construction. The 419 skeletal remains, already excavated and held at Lehman College, went to Howard University for scientific study. Additionally, the planned 34-story building was reduced to 30 floors and a pavilion was created. It later became the location of a monument.
African Burial Ground National Monument.
"Once the Monument was constructed, interpreting the site was most fulfilling and provided me the opportunity to share my knowledge of the spiritual significance of the site, particularly the symbolisms, which I studied in my frequent visits to Africa and other countries in the Diaspora," Leonard said.
Dr. Sherrill Wilson, who became director of the African Burial Project, hired Leonard as a public educator in 2001. Leonard went to local schools, colleges, and community organizations to share information through education packets, question and answer sessions, talks, and videos.
Leonard also served as a liaison between the site and the Schomburg Center, who handled 2003’s Rites of Ancestral Return: Tribute and Reinterment Ceremony. Starting in Washington, D.C. and stopping in cities such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Newark, New Jersey, the excavated human remains traveled to their permanent resting place at the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan.
Cyril took part in the ceremony through his work with the Black Panther Party. The group had a caisson decorated with its artwork and logo carrying some of the coffins to the burial ground.
"It was a beautiful thing to see the people speak and the reverence they gave to their ancestors," Cyril said.
"The entire weekend was a joyful and meaningful celebration," Leonard said. "To know that our ancestors would be returning in style to their original resting place in coffins that were handmade in Ghana and the descendant community marching proudly down Broadway with a great sense of accomplishment after a long struggle and ten years of scientific study at Howard University; much of what we all felt is difficult to put into words."
Leonard, who has since retired, is part of the 30th anniversary planning committee organizing virtual events for the African Burial Ground.
Cyril currently conducts the libations ceremony for the opening night of Kwanzaa celebrations at the burial ground each year, and has officiated similar traditions at the Schomburg Center.
The African Burial Ground dates back from the mid-1630s to 1795. Free and enslaved Africans were excluded from burial ground churchyards within New York City. Their final resting place could only be in this area, spanning 6.6. acres or approximately five city blocks.
The African Burial Ground National Monument—its official name—was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1993 and named a national monument in 2006. It is located at the corners of Duane and Elk streets.
Cyril and Leonard hope the site provides a blueprint for future generations on how to proceed with future historic discoveries.
"What is most important for younger generations to know is the importance of community and what can be achieved when communities come together, raise their voices and take committed action around important issues and concerns," Leonard said.
"Had it not been for these voices and actions that insisted upon accountability and respect for the stakeholders, there would be no memorial/monument status/museum, etc. There is an African proverb which states, ‘sticks in a bundle are unbreakable.’ I think this exemplifies the activism around the AFBG."
The Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division holds books in its collections such as The African Burial Ground in New York City: Memory, Spirituality, and Space by Andrea E. Frohne, In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City 1626-1863 by Leslie M. Harris, and The Story of New York’s African Burial Ground by Joyce Hansen and Gary McGowan.
In the Livestream archive, the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery at the Schomburg Center held the 2016 program, The African Burial Ground and Beyond, to commemorate the site’s 25th anniversary. Panelists included Columbia University sociologist Alondra Nelson, Howard University biologist Fatimah Jackson, City University of New York anthropologist Leith Mullings, Connecticut State University anthropologist Warren Perry, and Michael Blakey, anthropologist and a National Endowment for the Humanities professor at the College of William & Mary.