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March 14, 2023 People & Politics

The African Burial Ground

A seminal archaeology project proves it is possible to study human remains ethically.

Collage illustration showing map of African Burial Ground in Manhattan, human skull illustration, man's face wearing mask, MOVE bombing in West Philadelphia.

In 1991, as crews broke ground on a new federal office building in lower Manhattan, they discovered human skeletons. It soon became clear that it was the oldest and largest African cemetery in the country. The federal government was ready to keep building, but people from all over the African diaspora were moved to treat this site with dignity, respect, and scientific excellence. When bioarchaeologist Michael Blakey took over, that’s exactly what they got. But it wasn’t easy.

About Innate: How Science Invented the Myth of Race

“The African Burial Ground” is Episode 5, Part 2 of Innate: How Science Invented the Myth of Racea podcast and magazine project that explores the historical roots and persistent legacies of racism in American science and medicine. Published through Distillations, the Science History Institute’s highly acclaimed digital content platform, the project examines the scientific origins of support for racist theories, practices, and policies. Innate is made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy demands wisdom.

Credits

Host: Alexis Pedrick
Senior Producer: Mariel Carr
Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez
Associate Producer: Padmini Raghunath
Audio Engineer: Jonathan Pfeffer
“Innate Theme” composed by Jonathan Pfeffer. Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions

Resource List

Archaeology under the Blinding Light of Raceby Michael Blakey

African Burial Ground Project: Paradigm for Cooperation? by Michael Blakey

The African Burial Ground in New York City: Memory, Spirituality, and Space, by Andrea E. Frohne

The African Burial Ground: An American Discovery, documentary film by David Kutz

Reassessing the “Sankofa Symbol” in New York’s African Burial Ground, by Erik R. Seeman

The New York African Burial Ground Final Reports, by multiple authors

Transcript

Alexis Pedrick:

Welcome to our new season, Innate: How Science Invented the Myth of Race. This is episode five, part two: the African Burial Ground. Before we start, a content warning for our listeners. This episode contains details about violence and the mishandling of human remains. This is the second part of a two-part episode, so if you haven’t listened to part one yet, you should. In that episode, we heard about how the remains of Black children killed by the Philadelphia police in the 1985 MOVE bombing have been stored inside the Penn Museum for decades, without any family knowledge or consent.

NBC Philadelphia:

One of the saddest days in Philadelphia history is right back in the spotlight. But the focus tonight is on the remains of some of the children who were killed in that bombing, and how it appears they were used in classes to teach Ivy League students.

Alexis Pedrick:

This revelation left the children’s families and the public outraged and grief-stricken. And then, came the salt on the wound. Even though it was clearly unethical, it turned out that no laws or even clear, professional standards have been broken. We met bioarchaeologist Michael Blakey at the end of the last episode. He’s been leading the charge to rewrite these professional standards. And he’s the perfect person to do it because he’s been practicing ethical, community-driven archaeology research for decades. In the 1990s, Michael Blakey led the African Burial Ground Archaeology Project in Manhattan.

Michael Blakey:

And in the end … I have to say this … that we produced the most sophisticated bioarchaeological project that has been conducted thus far.

Alexis Pedrick:

Michael Blakey and his team worked with the consent of the people who had the most at stake, and they involved them in the research. And it wasn’t just ethical. It produced better science. Our senior producer, Mariel Carr, reported this two-part episode, and she’s going to take part two from here.

Mariel Carr:

Thanks, Alexis. I want to start this episode by taking us back to a moment in the fall of 1991. I spoke to a man named Bill Diamond who was also involved in this project, but on the other side of the table from Michael Blakey.

Alexis Pedrick:

Chapter One: We Found Bones.

Bill Diamond:

Okay. This is Bill Diamond speaking. It was during the last year of the administration of George H.W. Bush. I was the Regional Administrator of the United States General Services Administration for the Northeast United States.

Mariel Carr:

The General Services Administration, or GSA, manages all federal property, and Bill Diamond oversaw the construction of every federal building in his region, which included New York City. In the fall of ’91, he’d been managing the construction of a new 34-story office building in Lower Manhattan.

Bill Diamond:

The Congress of the United States had allocated a large sum of money, which you can look up, to build a federal office building right in Foley Square.

Mariel Carr:

The price tag was $275 million, and Bill thought everything was going okay.

Bill Diamond:

I had a no strike clause, it was just going along fine.

Mariel Carr:

But when the crew broke ground, something happened, and Bill Diamond was out of town.

Bill Diamond:

My wife and I were on vacation in Acapulco, and it’s very far away. And all of a sudden, who’s on the phone? David Dinkins, the mayor of New York. I believe he was the first Black mayor of New York. He says, “We found a skull. We found a skeleton. We found bones.”

Fox 5 News:

From Fox 5, this is the 10:00 news.

Fox 5 News:

It’s a graveyard right in the heart of Downtown, and it’s already surprising some historians. Jeff Weiser has more in this exclusive report.

Bill Diamond:

That was the site where the backhoe hit the skeleton of the first discovery, and that’s where the so-called problem began.

Mariel Carr:

Days later, an official announcement was made. They found 11 intact burials 30 feet below Broadway. When you listen to Bill’s story and the TV news, it sounds like construction workers accidentally dug up that first skeleton in the fall of ’91. But a woman named Peggy King Jorde told me that’s not actually what happened. Peggy King Jorde was living in New York and working in the mayor’s office of Construction in 1990 when she was approached by a friend, a man who was a groundskeeper at City Hall Park.

Peggy King Jorde:

And he considered himself a history buff. He was born and raised in New York. He used to drop by and talk to everybody. And so one day, he dropped by and he said, “Peggy, I’d like to meet you for lunch. Let’s bring our lunches. I have something to show you.”

Mariel Carr:

He showed Peggy an environmental impact statement. This is a report that GSA had to get done before they broke ground. It was required by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, and these reports show how land was used in the past.

Peggy King Jorde:

They want to make sure that it’s safe. They also would like to know whether it’s an important site or not.

Mariel Carr:

The final environmental impact statement included documents, like a written description of the land from the 18th century and some old maps. Peggy got it right after it was submitted in 1990. Now, just a note. The name African Burial Ground was given to it after it was rediscovered in the 20th century. Maps and other historical documents from its time use a range of outdated terms. So for clarity and consistency and, frankly, respect, I’m going to be calling it the African Burial Ground, even when I’m talking about it in a historical context.

Peggy King Jorde:

And on one of the larger maps was this name, the “Negroes’ Burying Ground.” And so he gave me the document, “You hold onto it and please let whoever needs to know, know so that we can possibly stop this and that nothing really should be built on this site.” This is where people are buried and that, in his mind, there should be a chapel where people can go and reflect what happened there. That started a conversation between us over lunch about his reflecting on the fact that he had gone to school in New York City, didn’t know anything about this history, was shocked to find that New York had enslaved Africans, that slavery was even part of New York’s history, and that he generally assigned that to the South.

Mariel Carr:

And he wasn’t alone. Many of us think primarily of the South when we think of American slavery. But New York City was actually once home to the largest community of enslaved Africans outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Africans were first brought to New York City by the Dutch in 1626. They came from Congo, Angola, and some by way of Brazil, where they’d already been enslaved. They built the infrastructure of New York City and the wealth of its founders, and this burial ground was their sacred space.

Alexis Pedrick:

Chapter Two: Anybody Know Any Black Archaeologists?

Mariel Carr:

Almost every inch of the land on top of the burial ground had been developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, so it was reasonable to wonder if any burials could still be intact. This is Bill Diamond speaking in a 1994 documentary called The African Burial Ground:An American Discovery.

Bill Diamond:

In the Environmental Impact Statement, which the government is required to do, they turned up a map that showed the existence of the “Negro Burial Ground.” The feeling, however, was … and there were many references to this in the documentation … that while the cemetery had existed, that it was no more in existence.

Mariel Carr:

Even so, the Environmental Impact Statement recommended treading with extreme care.

Peggy King Jorde:

That document said even if those burials had been disturbed over the course of the years that the city was developing, that it would still be incredibly important to move cautiously and with the idea that we want to get as much ground truth, as they say, from the ground about a population that we knew so little about, which was first-generation Africans, enslaved Africans, and free Africans in New York.

Mariel Carr:

So the GSA hired an archaeological crew to do some initial digging. They were required to do this by law. And the crew narrowed in on a sliver of land that had always been an alley.

Bill Diamond:

That was the site where the backhoe hit the skeleton of the first discovery, and that’s the one that Dinkins called me on.

Mariel Carr:

Peggy King Jorde heard the news, and she noticed that there was no mention about who exactly had been buried there. And that’s when she learned that the GSA had implemented a gag order.

Peggy King Jorde:

A gag order for the archaeologist not to have a conversation with the public about what they’re seeing really. I happened to go with an in-house group of city workers to go to the site sign. I remember hearing the archaeologist kind of field some questions, and however he was feeling those questions seemed to be a denial of the existence of these people who were buried there. For me, as a descendant of enslaved people, for me to be standing there … and then to have someone on a simple word, essentially, in my mind, attempt to erase the very existence of a people laying there in the ground just was outrageous to me. And I knew that at that moment, I just could not turn a blinds eye. I’m a product of the civil rights movement. My father was a civil rights attorney. So it just sort of sparked within me this desire to investigate more where the resistance was coming from and how do we stop that. How do we change that course?

Mariel Carr:

Peggy was worried that this team of archaeologists … who were all White, by the way … weren’t the right fit for the job. It was becoming clear that this wasn’t just a site of 20 or 30 burials. That there were probably thousands. So Peggy started writing memos and going to federal meetings she hadn’t been invited to, and one stands out.

Peggy King Jorde:

In that meeting, they were giving an update on some of the information that they thought that they were uncovering in the field.

Mariel Carr:

In one grave site, they found a button from a British naval coat, and one of the archaeologists suggested that maybe this man had stolen it from a British officer.

Peggy King Jorde:

Why would he say that? Historically, we know that the British offered freedom to those enslaved Africans if they fought with them. Okay, so now he’s starting to write a new story again. And it became my mission …

Peggy King Jorde:

to raise that issue, which is to say, why don’t you have someone who is a black professional, an archeologist, historian? Where are your African American professionals on this team? It seems to me that we all agree that our story was written by other people who don’t look like us. And now that the ground is open again, here’s an opportunity for us to be able to interpret our own story. Now is an opportunity to do this right. And at that point, after raising it, I will never forget the general administrator, Bill Diamond, looked to the left, looked to the right and said, “Anybody know any Black archeologists?” And I said, “Well, if you don’t know him, I’ll help find them.”

Mariel Carr:

And she did, she found Michael Blakey, but she needed a strong showing of public support to get him hired.

Speaker 2:

Chapter three. Some of them bones is mine.

Mariel Carr:

In 1990, just a year before the burial ground first made TV news, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act or NAGPRA had become law. NAGPRA protects Native American cultural objects and human remains, and it lays out procedures to repatriate them to lineal descendants and affiliated tribes.

Peggy King Jorde:

GSA knew that if something, if they encountered something like that, that the response by the federal government would be to step back from a site like that. But there were no such laws for African-American sites. This was not something that they were going to move forward on with the idea that, hey, let’s stop and talk to everybody and figure out whether we’re actually going to build this building or not. That’s not the way it was going to be approached at all.

Mariel Carr:

But the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act gave the burial ground some protection, namely section 106 which says that the responsible federal agency must consult with members of the public and consider their views and concerns when making final project decisions.

Peggy King Jorde:

And so it was really important. We demanded public meetings. They expected only a few people and it continued to grow.

Mariel Carr:

Bill Diamond met with the public like he was crossing a task off a list, but meanwhile, he was still trying to excavate the burial ground so he could get his building up.

Peggy King Jorde:

You have a multimillion dollar building that you have a top architecture firm design. For you, it’s going up. I mean, they don’t want to hear, “Hey, stop the building.”

Mariel Carr:

But that’s exactly what he heard, in meetings that kept getting bigger. They started out in conference rooms, but eventually filled up whole churches, and Michael Blakey was at most of those meetings.

Michael Blakey:

They were all powerful and tended to be quite large on the streets around the building, in the churches.

The African Burial Ground: An American Discovery:

You do not disturb the deceased. You leave our people alone. You let them rest in peace. And if these reasonable and just demands are not met, then at the very least we should do everything that we can to stop the construction of this building.

Michael Blakey:

That community in New York was galvanized. This was about respect, not just for the dead, but for the living and the just the mundane racism, the disrespect for African American dignity that white people principally of the federal government were expressing. I testified on The Hill about this as well in the marvelous company of people like Mayor David Dickinson, David Patterson, and just everyday folks who all knew what they were and would not be treated as less.

Mariel Carr:

They recognized the people in the burial ground as their ancestors. The institution of slavery might have erased people’s names and broken family ties, and it might not be possible to prove blood relationships, but they saw themselves as family nonetheless.

The African Burial Ground: An American Discovery:

There is a slogan that seems to be going around the community right now that is borrowed from an old Negro spiritual, which says “Some of them bones is my mother’s bones come together for to rise and shine. Some of them bones is my father’s bones and some of them bones is mine.” So there is a sense of a very, very personal connection that our community has with the African burial ground that goes deeper than all of the politics that are coming out of this issue because this is about family.

Stop the digging.

Bill Diamond:

And what happened was that it became a tremendous political issue. Crowds came, they blamed me, and crowds came down from wherever all over the city, I think yelling, “Fire Bill Diamond. Fire Bill Diamond.” As a Republican political appointee, I was under real pressure.

Mariel Carr:

Bill Diamond proposed a way to honor the burial ground, but community organizers found it disrespectful.

The African Burial Ground: An American Discovery:

How will the government then acknowledge the fact that this was a cemetery?

The region has been able to come with a $250,000 contribution to a interpretive display, which we will do.

This is a pacifier.

It’s obviously not a pacifier.

Yes, it is.

Meeting after meeting, after meeting you have led us on. You have made us think that you were listening to us and yet you have not. For you to sit there and to tell us about a plaque in a building is not addressing the situation at all. Why are you meeting with the community?

Because we meet does not mean that we agree. We do not…

Mariel Carr:

Bill Diamond is now retired.

The African Burial Ground: An American Discovery:

Chanting at religious ceremony at the burial ground.

Mariel Carr:

But three decades later, this experience has stuck with him.

Bill Diamond:

They set up a site of worship. People came and gave food to the skeletons. There were a number of practitioners of African religions and they’ve said prayers. There was one who kept threatening me with his… What do they call that stick? Juju stick, and he used it. He said, “If I put this stick on you, you will be cursed forever.” And I’m basically Jewish, so I didn’t… But I didn’t want to take the chance, and he was right because he had the moral force of his deep feelings for his people whose grave site was being disturbed.

Mariel Carr:

Bill Diamond told the public that he was bringing their demands to his superiors, but later in a congressional hearing, he admitted that he never did. In 1992, he communicated the GSA’s final position to the public.

The African Burial Ground: An American Discovery:

We have been instructed by the Congress, we being the General Service Administration, by law to construct an 850,000 square foot building on this site. We have no alternative but to do so unless we are instructed by the Congress not to do so.

Mariel Carr:

And in the summer of 1992, this is what finally happened. Congressman Gus Savage of Chicago, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and Chairman of the House of Representatives subcommittee on buildings and grounds, threw in his support for the community activists. And that made the difference.

The African Burial Ground: An American Discovery:

I am not going to be a part of your district. What people here have testified, scholars have called the most important archeological discovery in this century, and I’m going to do, Gus Savage, everything in my power to make you change your occupancy and your disrespect for our secular [inaudible 00:20:43]. And with that, having been said…

Alexis Pedrick:

Chapter four. We are the memorializers.

Mariel Carr:

The group of community organizers had won. They were in charge, and Peggy King Jorde gave them this message.

Peggy King Jorde:

You need Dr. Blakey to be on that team. You need the constituency to get behind getting this man on the team. And so those guys would show up at meetings and they were armed with, we need Dr. Blakey to be on this team.

Mariel Carr:

So Michael Blakey was brought on to work alongside the GSA hired archeology team for 10 days to evaluate whether they were cut out for the job or not.

Michael Blakey:

And my evaluation was essentially that they were ill-equipped to analyze what was clearly becoming the largest and most important African American bioarcheological site, maybe the earliest. The short answer is that the principal investigator who I knew, he had a high school diploma. He was white, but he had a high school diploma. I had a team of PhDs with long experience on African American and increasingly we saw we needed Africanists and Caribbeanists with PhDs. They wanted to, for example, use race as a fundamental way of understanding the African burial ground population. Africans from many societies, kingdoms and empires, and West and West Central Africa, all of which had specific histories, and the specific history of their being brought into the Caribbean and then into New York and the lives they lived there. This is about their history and biology, understanding health, nutrition, mortality, fertility. It’s one line of evidence. And as we did in our project, among buried lines of evidence, historical and other evidence to characterize the human lives of these people. Race objectifies them.

Mariel Carr:

The GSA archeologists were forensic anthropologists. Their expertise was in identifying people for the courts, and they had a very narrow focus. This is how Fatima Jackson, a biologist and anthropologist who also worked on the project, puts it.

Fatimah Jackson:

They wanted to do race, age, gender, race, age, gender, race, age, gender. We know this is a dude and he’s probably African-American. They’re in the Negro burial ground, hint, hint.

Mariel Carr:

This is another clip from that 1994 documentary of one of those original archeologists.

The African Burial Ground: An American Discovery:

We determine racial characteristics by looking at various differences that are apparent. Usually in the cranium, in the skull of an individual, there are certain characteristics which indicate or suggest that people were of African ancestry or Caucasian or Oriental, or whatever. Out of the total population that we’ve looked at so far, by far the majority seem to be of African ancestry.

Mariel Carr:

Besides the narrow scope, it was also clear that the excavation was being rushed. The team was working 11 hours a day, seven days a week. and when Michael Blakey surveyed the storage area, he found skeletal remains crammed into cabinet drawers, damaged skulls and broken bones, and the storage area had no air conditioning, which meant that mold had started growing on the remains. And the team was so busy excavating, they hadn’t produced a research design. There was no line of inquiry they were pursuing, no broad questions they were trying to answer. They were just digging up bodies as quickly as they could so the GSA could get on with the building. So Michael Blakey and his team took over, but they were working for that group of community organizers. They were the people who had taken ownership over this burial ground, who saw the people there as their ancestors. And Michael coined a new term to describe this group. He called them the descendent community.

Michael Blakey:

I was working on a research design thinking, “This community needs a handle. What would they be called that embodies their rights, their specific rights to the past and to their ancestors?” What its relationship was, what the justification of its stewardship of the remains was. And that fit was embraced by the community then, and continues to be used.

Mariel Carr:

The descendent community was concerned about the continued desecration of the burial ground. They recognized that rituals around death are a vital part of our humanity, and Michael Blakey did too.

Michael Blakey:

What does it mean to be human? What would be on the final exam of an introductory course? And of course, we characterize human beings as those who walk on two legs, erect, have their hands free, and opposable, develop tools. We transform energy as fire. But what occurs, what marks the earliest homo sapiens, is the burial of the dead. Ultimately, it is to imagine the continuing social obligations of human beings, even to the dead. I sometimes think that we should be called homo reminiscens, not sapiens, that what distinguishes us is that we are the memorializers.

Mariel Carr:

The descendent community had decision-making power.

Michael Blakey:

And key in this, the community could have refused our access completely. You can only consent when you can refuse. And so they had the potential to refuse us. And they could use, then, the practitioners that most human beings have used for millennia, religious practitioners, to memorialize their dead. But as a lifelong scientist, I also felt that we had skills to offer, to help tell an accurate story, a material-based story of the dead.

Mariel Carr:

In the end, the descendent community gave permission to Michael Blakey and his team to study the remains that had already been excavated. There were 419 of them. The total number of burials was estimated to be much higher, maybe 20,000, but the descendent community said, “That’s enough. We want to leave the rest in peace.” But it was this group, the descendent community, not just Michael Blakey and his team, who came up with research questions. They wanted the experts to answer the questions that were important to them.

Alexis Pedrick:

Chapter five, the neutral scholar is an ignoble man.

Michael Blakey:

We considered the descendent community to be our ethical client.

Mariel Carr:

Michael Blakey calls this a clientage model, and it meant that the expert team was beholden to the descendent community. It put the power in their hands, and that didn’t stop at just getting permission. It meant the descendent community got regular updates on the project, they had access to lab visits, and they got to decide on the research questions.

Michael Blakey:

Since we are always making decisions involving people’s history, and that has impact on their lives, they have a right to be involved in those decisions. In other words, I agree with Frederick Douglass in 1854, who says, “The neutral scholar is an ignoble man,” simply looking for a way of uncovering his personal decisions, so that he can get the support of everybody. On slavery, he said, “You are either for us or against us,” so I am essentially for the humane responsibility of scholars to do no harm, and it is possible to do harm with the telling of other people’s stories, certainly with preventing them from telling their own.

Mariel Carr:

The descendent community narrowed in on four questions.

Michael Blakey:

Origins of the African community in New York, transformations towards the beginning of an African-American population or a community, the physical quality of life during their enslavement, and then the fourth is resistance.

Mariel Carr:

One burial still stands out to Michael.

Michael Blakey:

You know, there’s one example of a silver ear bob that a child had worn, that was placed around a child’s neck as a pendant, by people who were desperately poor as the enslaved of New York. They gave that to that child.

Mariel Carr:

You can hear these questions and the stories that Michael’s telling and say that’s nice, or touching, but the approach also made for much more sophisticated archeology. Michael wasn’t just checking boxes off of a list. He wasn’t identifying race, age, gender, and moving to the next burial. He was trying to paint a picture of these people’s lives. This is Fatimah Jackson again.

Fatimah Jackson:

You know, at the time that Michael Blakey was directing the New York African burial ground, he was bucking the establishment, the scientific establishment, because they wanted to do race, age, gender, race, age, gender, race, age, gender. It was like, that’s not what we want to know. So our questions were at a higher level than the typical forensic question, and so he really shifted the paradigm, and now you see, at other grave sites that have been discovered, people aren’t talking about race, age, gender anymore. They’re talking about the Blakey approach. In fact, we should call it the Blakey approach in archeology, but that was a tremendous battle.

Mariel Carr:

The final archeology reports are thousands of pages long, and they’re all about answering those four questions. But here’s just one example of a way that Michael Blakey was able to start chipping away at that question about origins.

Michael Blakey:

Burial 101 has evidence of a tropical disease, very slightly filed teeth, which is something usually not continued in the Americas. And he either was born in the Americas or in a highly Europeanized, say Creole community in a place like Ghana.

Mariel Carr:

There was also this notable design made from tacks on the lid of this man’s coffin, sort of in the shape of a heart.

Michael Blakey:

It could be a number of things, but you know, it depends on what eyes one brings to it.

Mariel Carr:

Michael Blakey and his team suggested that it could be a Sankofa symbol from the Akan tribe in Ghana.

Michael Blakey:

That means “look to the past to inform the present, and as a guide to the future.” And I will say that in our reports, we indicate that there are several possibilities. We don’t absolutely know. We don’t absolutely know anything about the past. But Sankofa was embraced by us all.

Mariel Carr:

A Sankofa became the symbol of the African burial ground. It now graces the national monument. Choosing this symbol felt powerful and relevant.

Michael Blakey:

Remember, in the 1990s, we were in a kind of regime of, “Let’s just move on.” I’ll tell you, if someone says, as GSA occasionally said to me, “Let’s not talk about what just happened to you. Let’s just start from here,” they’re trying to get away with something.

Mariel Carr:

Years later, a historian named Erik Seeman questioned whether this heart-shaped symbol could really be a Sankofa. He wrote about it in an article in 2010.

Michael Blakey:

Timed with the opening of our visitor’s center, that essentially says, “This symbol cannot be Sankofa, because no European had seen it, because there’s no record of it in a European archive in this period of the late 18th century.” That’s a kind of historical conceit, that only if white people write about it does it exist, objectively.

Mariel Carr:

Michael says that denying the possibility that this symbol was a Sankofa feeds into a narrative that African culture did not persist in the Americas.

Michael Blakey:

There’s often the assumption that they were readily acculturated, you know? Sort of it’s in the narrative of Christian charity, that slavery gave to the enslaved more than what he or she had as Africans.

Mariel Carr:

In his article, Erik Seeman points to some Adinkra cloths in a Dutch museum as part of his case against the Sankofa symbol in the African burial ground.

Michael Blakey:

Seeman says that there were many stampings, but none were Sankofa.

Mariel Carr:

So Michael went to look for himself, and he found something else entirely.

Michael Blakey:

And in the very center of that Adinkra cloth are, in a whole panel, are the classic… is the classic form of Sankofa. So either it was dishonest or a reflection of the inability to recognize what one sees when it is not what one wishes to see, to be purported, really, to undermine, I think, the African-American-led project and scholars, as somehow biased and not legitimate in assessing the evidential past of our own people.

Mariel Carr:

The next step of the project was DNA analysis of the remains, and the descendent community pushed for this to happen at Howard, a historically black university. So in November of 1993, Howard University hosted a ceremony to honor the ancestors of the African burial ground, and after the ceremony, the remains would go on to Howard’s William Montague Cobb Lab.

The African Burial Ground: An American Discovery:

We pour libation on Mother Earth to call on the almighty supreme being for generations to come.

Mariel Carr:

There was a procession to Howard’s chapel, and once there, an elder from the New York descendent community handed Michael Blakey a box carefully wrapped in an African cloth.

Michael Blakey:

It was powerful. I still have that box. We wanted to commemorate what these remains meant to us and our communities, the complementarity of science and spirituality, of Africa and the diaspora around our received remains.

Alexis Pedrick:

Chapter six, what can you do with 400 years of African-American biological history?

Fatimah Jackson:

We’re able to mine so much information out of the New York African burial ground. In fact, I wrote a paper many years ago, and it said, “What can you do with 400 years of African-American biological history?” And the answer is a lot, right?

Mariel Carr:

This is Fatimah Jackson again. Until recently, she was the director of the William Montague Cobb Lab at Howard, and she still teaches there. Fatimah joined the African Burial Ground Project in 1994, but she didn’t get access to DNA samples until 2000.
 

Fatimah Jackson:

We had to wait for the genetics because the Histologist wanted their piece and the anatomist wanted their piece, and by the time they finally sent some samples, there were some little baby rib bones and there’s very little DNA content in that. But fortunately, the science has progressed.

Mariel Carr:

You can now do sophisticated DNA analysis with tiny samples, which is what Fatimah and her lab have. Remember, the descendant community wanted to disturb the remains as little as possible.

Fatimah Jackson:

But we make do, and we make do, which is the story of our people in America. We make do and we do the best with what we have. Necessity is the mother of invention.

Mariel Carr:

Fortunately, Fatimah is allowed to keep the samples she got and she’s still analyzing them. She’s been looking at the mitochondrial DNA, that’s DNA that’s passed down from our mothers, and she’s helping answer that first question about origins in Africa. You see, there’s often an assumption that enslaved Africans in the United States came almost exclusively from West and Central Africa, but Fatimah has discovered that it’s much more complex than that.

Fatimah Jackson:

Just to give you a hint, because I was working on this analysis this morning, we are finding that the maternal lineages of African Americans come from all over Africa. From East Africa, from West Africa, from Central Africa, the majority for sure from West and Central Africa, but also from Southern Africa and from Eastern Africa and from North Africa.

Mariel Carr:

At one point, Fatimah had a revelation. It was really hard to get access to bones from the burial ground, but then she realized there was another kind of sample that she could study.

Fatimah Jackson:

The grave soil that was around the bodies. Actually it was the bodies at one time before it turned into soil.

Mariel Carr:

So she started working on it with a grad student she had at the time, Carter Clinton. He’s now continuing the work as a postdoc at Penn State University,

Fatimah Jackson:

And he has been able to reconstruct the most likely cause of death for those individuals in the African burial ground 400 years ago. Isn’t it exciting?

Mariel Carr:

What? Can you please… Okay, so how is that possible?

Fatimah Jackson:

The flesh does turn to soil. As we decompose, the microbes in the soil as well as microbes in our intestine or in other parts of our body will begin to break down the complex tissues to a more simple tissues. So that’s really pretty exciting.

Mariel Carr:

Some of the diseases they’ve identified are tuberculosis, legionella, which is the cause of Legionnaire’s disease, and Yersinia pestis, which is the Bubonic plague, and all of this they’re finding out from the soil.

Fatimah Jackson:

So we are also thinking that because the actual time of death for the individuals in the New York African burial ground is not known, we can go back and look in the historical record and see what were the epidemics at that time. And then see do we get a peak in deaths due to yellow fever or due to cholera, and can we match up the cause of death with any historical information on the epidemics of the period? That would be the next step.

Mariel Carr:

Using grave soil instead of bone means that you can kind of have it both ways. You can generate new scientific knowledge without sacrificing someone’s bodily autonomy or taking away family members’ right to decide how to honor their loved one. It’s possible to do ethical science with human remains.

Fatimah Jackson:

So it’s very exciting. It opens up a whole new chapter and says that we don’t have to destroy bone in order to get that kind of genomic information. We can actually use the additional information that’s all around us, and of course, we’re more microbe than we are human DNA.

Mariel Carr:

Fatimah Jackson wants to make sure that ethical research continues because we need that new scientific information.

Fatimah Jackson:

We do know more about Neanderthals than we know about modern humans in Africa. What I’m hoping is that as a people, we will take full advantage of these skeletal and dental remains such that those remains can help us in the future, and they won’t just simply be tucked away and forgotten and be of no good to the living. Because the way you put blessings on those who have passed is that you use their efforts to help improve the future.

Mariel Carr:

The African burial ground has had a huge impact on the descendant community.

The African Burial Ground: An American Discovery:

It’s important for us to know as African people what role we played in the structure of this country and this city, and it’s important for other people to know who also feel that blacks have not contributed to anything. It’s important for us to know for self-esteem and also for self-respect. I will never walk down these streets the same way again. I’ll always know that this is little Africa. This is where my people lived when we were first brought here in bondage.

Mariel Carr:

The full archeology reports, which are 2,500 pages long, are now on the GSA’s website.

Michael Blakey:

And so it is out there and I say to people, so read it and do what we’ve had to do along the way. Put it on the table and compare it with anything else. An activist science can be better science.

Mariel Carr:

Within the field of anthropology, though, the lessons learned from the African burial ground didn’t reshape the field as much as Michael Blakey would’ve hoped, and the discovery of the move remains at the Penn Museum in 2021 was a harsh reminder of that.

Michael Blakey:

I would like to say though that this event has stirred my colleagues. I’m happy that its time has finally come. It’s long overdue, but ethics is about our responsibility to other people, and informed consent is at the heart of it. Others have a right to decline as the family of Tree and Delicia Africa should have had the right to really bury their children and decline their display in an online forensics course.

Mariel Carr:

It’s frustrating, to say the least, to think that there was this example just sitting there showing anthropologists of a better way to work, and I asked Michael Blakey why it’s kind of been ignored.

Michael Blakey:

We are just a microcosm of the larger society, so I guess the larger way of putting this is it’s a problem of whiteness and control and cover. They want the cover and they want the control. You’re asking why hasn’t it been embraced? And I’m saying that the teacher’s generation of white people rejected it because it was black led, because it was not theirs, because they could not have it. But they say the truth rises, and here it comes.

Mariel Carr:

This episode was reported and produced by me, Mariel Carr. There was additional reporting by Alexis Pedrick and it was edited by Rigoberto Hernandez. It was mixed by Jonathan Pfeffer, who also composed our innate theme music.

Distillations is more than a podcast. It’s also a multimedia magazine. You can find our videos, stories, and podcasts at distillations.org. You can follow the Science History Institute on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for news about our podcasts and everything else going on in our museum, library and research center.

The Science History Institute remains committed to revealing the role of science in our world. Please support our efforts at sciencehistory.org/give now. For Distillations, I’m Mariel Carr.

 

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