Excavating an African Burial Ground: Lack of Funding Could Mean Loss of Information Forever
As children growing up in the United States, educated through our public schools, we learned about the institution of slavery, which was an integral part of life in our country for nearly 300 years. We do not usually question the historical facts we learned about slavery or ask how we know so much about the history of these people (the enslaved Africans in America) who left behind so little written record. In the classroom, archeologists do not receive much credit, but it is largely through their work and research that we have been able to learn about “America’s diverse ethnic heritage” (Singleton 155). In the 1960’s, excavations of slave cabins inspired a new area of research. Today’s field of African-American Archaeology was born from these first digs, only three decades ago. Archaeologists carefully and skillfully collect artifacts, which are “tangible material remains and by-products of behavior” (Singleton 156). Through historical and ethnographic analysis and interpretation, archeologists are able to put together pieces of the daily lives and living conditions of the first African-Americans.
One such African-American archaeological dig, called the African Burial Ground Project, is currently taking place in New York City. In 1991, the construction crew for a new, $276 million federal office building stumbled across the skeletons of what are now known to be early African slaves. The United States General Services Administration (GSA), the government agency that handles the funding and administration of all federal property, began further exploration of the site. Today we know that this “plot of land is just a sliver of the 18th century cemetery now known to lie under five city blocks surrounded by New York’s City Hall, the U.S. Courthouse, and the State Supreme Court” (Brunius 16). Many people, including scholars, historians, archaeologists and members of the African-American community consider the African Burial Ground Project “the nation’s most significant archaeological find of the century” (Brunius 16). Usually GSA is able to handle their responsibilities with federal properties, but they are not doing a good job with this project. Unfortunately, the GSA has significantly mishandled the African Burial Ground Project. As the overseers of this project, the GSA is responsible for the project’s insufficient funds and the under-skilled archaeological team who damaged many artifacts. The multitude of information that the African Burial Ground holds presents a priceless opportunity to learn about the lives and conditions of slaves living in the North, and it is therefore time to fully fund this project.
It was not until recently, through studying remains found at the African Burial Ground site, that we discovered a significant African presence in early New York. Virtually all of these people were enslaved. “It is not generally understood that...