In 1991, the remains of more than 400 17th and 18th century Africans were discovered during construction of the Foley Square federal building site in New York City. The finding deeply impacted the descendant and broader community and at the same time renewed awareness in cultural significance and historic preservation.  Since then, the U.S. General Services Administration has been driven to complete what has become known as the African Burial Ground Project, a major effort to memorialize the legacy of those buried at the site.

Artist: Roger Brown

Commissioned: 1993
Installed: 1994

Glass mosaic: 14’High x 10’Wide

Location: Foley Square Federal Building 
290 Broadway
New York City

About the Artist:

Brown was born in Alabama, studied at the American Academy of Art and received degrees from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Works by this internationally recognized artist are represented in numerous public and private collections, among them Continental Bank, Amsterdam; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum Boymans, Rotterdam; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

About the Work of Art:
Roger Brown was a leading painter of the Chicago-Imagist style. For this project, Brown initially painted his image on canvass and then had the composition transformed by skilled artisans in Italy of special glass mosaics. All aspects of the work were accomplished to Brown’s satisfaction; assembled and installed under his guidance. Of his work, Brown said, “On this ancient cemetery site below the modern skyline of New York City a contemporary tapestry of human faces, each made thin and hollow by the ravages of AIDS, descends like some medieval nightmare into a mosaic of death heads in memory of those of all races who have suffered and died too soon.”

See more commissioned art at the African Burial Ground Site (Link-commissioned art:


I. History

A. Context and Significance of the Site

African American history in New York City began in the Dutch colonies. The first Africans arrived in New Amsterdam as enslaved men in 1625 and 1626; the first enslaved women in 1628. They worked as farmers and builders and in the fur trade of the Dutch West India Company. Some helped build the wall intended to keep settlers safe from the native population at the location of today's Wall Street.

In 1644, the Company granted "conditional freedom" to the enslaved on condition that they make an annual fixed payment of farm produce. The children of the "conditionally freed" people, born and unborn, remained the property of the Company. Most of the families received grants to lands they had been farming before becoming "free." At the time the area was generally undesirable swamp land. Today most of the area is in Greenwich Village.

The Dutch continued to expand and to import enslaved Africans to meet growing labor needs. Between 1649 and 1659 they imported hundreds of men, women and children. In New Amsterdam, the first sales tax, an import tax of 10%, was imposed to discourage merchants from selling "human cargo" outside of the colony.

Though not comprehensive, Dutch records do note that there were Africans who had never been enslaved who were living on the "free Negro lots" which today are located on land between from Astor Place and Prince Street.

In 1665, the Dutch surrendered New Amsterdam/New Netherlands to the British. For most European settlers, little changed in what became New York. For African New Yorkers, both enslaved and freed, British occupation meant severe change. Under Dutch rule, some Africans had gained half or full freedom. Even if enslaved, they had legal and social rights. One example is that no master could whip an enslaved African without the permission of the Dutch Common Council. This and other rules changed under the British rule.

In a move toward commercial efficiency, the British formed the Royal African Company to import slaves directly from Africa to New York. "From the start of the English occupation the creation of a commercially profitable slave system became a joint project of both government and private interests. Unlike the Dutch West India Company which used slavery to implement colonial policy, the Royal African Company used the colony to implement slavery." (Historian Edgar J. McManus)

New York's first slave market during the British period was established at Wall Street and the East River in 1709. In the early 1700's there were 800 African men, women, and children in the city; about 15% of the total population. Local and state documents did not distinguish between free and enslaved Africans until 1756. Before then the term "slave" was used to describe all Africans and their decedents. They were all looked upon as valuable sources of labor.

The British enacted numerous laws that restricted where Africans could be employed and how they could be freed. Laws were passed to prevent free Africans from aiding runaway slaves. The New York "Slave Codes" grew so numerous that they are seen as a major cause of the 1712 slave revolt. In the revolt, enslaved Africans and natives gathered in an orchard on Maiden Lane with hatchets, guns, knives, and hoes and set out to burn and destroy property in the area. Nine whites were killed during the revolt. Twenty-one enslaved Africans were executed and six were reported to have committed suicide. After the revolt more laws were passed that prohibited Africans and natives from carrying weapons and entering military service. There were strict curfews and laws against gathering of more than two or three enslaved people. The revolt emphasized the growing fear that European New Yorkers had of the growing African population.

At this time, Europeans in New York outnumbered people of African descent five to one, but the city contained the largest absolute number of enslaved Africans of any English colonial settlement except Charleston, South Carolina, and held the largest proportion of enslaved Africans of any northern settlement. By the first decade of the 1700's, forty percent of New York's households contained at least one enslaved African; again, the largest proportion of any northern settlement.

Africans were active in the American Revolution. Among the first locals to show their defiance and the first casualty of the Boston Massacre of 1770 was Chrispus Attucks, a black man. It has been said that the American Revolution allowed the black man "... his opportunity to fight in a war that would enable him to exercise his abilities and strengths as a free man." The British also made use of Africans to fill their ranks. One example being Benjamin Whitecuff, "a Hempstead negro," who served as a spy and as a sailor in the Royal Navy.

The Battle of Long Island, which took place in Brooklyn resulted in 10,000 British soldiers marching west through Bedford, outflanking the Americans and inflicting heavy casualties. The many lives lost included those of black members of the local militia. Numerous other examples can be cited. Of special note is a black man, James Armistead Lafayette, who was commended by the Marquis de Lafayette for his distinguished war record in 1784.

After the Revolution, equality came for some at different rates for different people in different parts of the country. In late 1807 the federal government passed a law prohibiting the importation and/or sale of slaves within the United States and its territories. Many social and economic factors contributed to the demise of slavery in the north but it was not forgotten. Until 1850 it was still legal to move existing slaves from and to anywhere within the national boundaries. Throughout the first half of the century, ships dealing in the slave trade could be seen being repaired and fitted out in New York harbors. It was not until the 1860's that the ultimate test came as to whether "... this nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure."

The old suspicions related to the earliest slave revolt clarify lessons that we are still learning. Perhaps one of the most important is that Africans did not merely turn into black Europeans when they arrived on this continent. African culture and traditions were kept alive consciously for generations. Some of the particulars were lost along the way but much that is African did not die in later times. African Americans have a long and proud story to tell in the history of this country and a unique cultural heritage. That heritage, in turn, shaped, contributed to, and added color to a larger culture that is uniquely American.

Although Africans were a vital part of society from the earliest colonial times, there are few landmarks in New York City that recognize their presence. They helped build the city but no statues or other monuments were built in their honor. No streets, squares, buildings or rivers have names with origins in their culture. Distinctly African landmarks and physical remains are scarce and scattered where they exist at all. The Burial Ground is significant because, in the midst of lower Manhattan, there exists the remains of an African culture stretching back to over 350 years.

"Throughout the eighteenth century, New York's free and enslaved Africans buried their dead in a parcel of land which now is part of the city's civic center area. ..... The total area is approximately seven acres..... The site is currently characterized by a nineteenth- and twentieth-century built environment including buildings, a construction site, parking areas, and city streets, under which a large portion of the African Burial Ground is preserved. The site's preservation in this area was due to sixteen to twenty-five feet of fill which has protected the original ground surface and an intact stratum of burials. The basements of buildings subsequently erected on the site penetrated only the fill, except on the lots on Broadway where the original ground surface was higher."

The area of the African Burial Ground was known and used as part of New York's "common" land until the late eighteenth century. Africans used land for a burial place that was then remote from the colonial town by virtue of its location in a low-lying area between hills, as well as in actual distance. The date of its initial use is not known. The earliest document that mentions the ground is from 1712/13. In it, a military chaplain wrote that "Negroes" were being buried in the Common by "those of their country." The "common" land stretched to the north of the eighteenth-century town, beginning at the southern end of the present City Hall Park. It is known that the twenty one Africans executed after the 1712 slave revolt were buried in that area.

The exact location is not known, but a clue is offered in a 1722 law prohibiting night funerals of slaves "south of the Collect Pond." By 1732 a piece of ground north of the city and just south of the Collect Pond had been labeled as the "Negro Burying Place" on a map of the city. In 1741, thirteen African men were burned at the stake and seventeen hanged because of conspiracy against the crown. The judge's records indicate that the executions took place between two collect ponds, evidence indicates subsequent burials in the nearby African Burial Ground.

The African Burial Ground is clearly labeled on an official 1755 plan of New York. It is shown north of the palisade, thus just outside the growing town. The British Headquarters Map of New York dating to about 1782 shows a burial ground immediately north of the Revolutionary War barracks.

A 1785 survey of the area was made for the purpose of dividing property into blocks and lots for sale and subsequent development. The land involved was shown as being bounded on the south by the "Negros Burial Ground." The burial area itself occupied land that was part of a patent belonging to a local European family which dated back to 1673. In 1795, family heirs exchanged this land for city lots further to the east. This marked the end of the area as a burial place. The land was soon subdivided and houses were constructed on lots immediately after each survey was completed. In 1796, the Common Council arranged to acquire part of the "Negros Burial Ground" for laying out Chambers Street east of Broadway.

By 1812, the area including the "African burying ground", was reported to have developed from "uninviting suburbs" to a place "covered with a flourishing population, and elegant improvements." Fortunately for the preservation of the burial ground most "improvements" were made at ground level, on the rubble of earlier structures or on fill that was purposely brought in for construction. Some areas saw very little disturbance. It was not until the modern towers of New York began to be built that deep foundation footings were required for stability.

See site for Bibliography

Newspaper Clippings:

The New York Times

October 2, 2003

Another Burial for 400 Colonial-Era Blacks


The hole is dug. The crypts are ready to be filled. More than 400 hand-carved mahogany coffins, containing the skeletal remains of free and enslaved African-Americans, are sitting in a temperature-controlled room in Lower Manhattan.

After three centuries and 12 years, they are ready to be laid to rest for a second time.

On Saturday, in a moment that promises to be joyous and bitter all at once, the 18th-century remains will be ceremonially lowered into the ground and covered, in the same place where they were discovered a dozen years ago as the federal government prepared to build an office tower. The reinterment will follow a day and a half of observances, including a procession up the Canyon of Heroes in Lower Manhattan. It will also bring a symbolic close to an especially tumultuous chapter in the city's racial history.

The joy, those close to the project agree, will come from seeing the belated celebration of lives and history once forgotten. The bitterness, they say, stemmed from the fact they had to be reburied at all.

"It was the considered judgment of virtually every African-American I knew that they shouldn't have been disturbed in the first place," said Howard Dodson, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which has helped bring together all the factions seeking a voice in the project.

The discovery of the remains, in a huge Colonial-era cemetery, have offered anthropologists a rare glimpse into the lives of the first black Americans in New York, which at one point had more slaves than any other city in the country besides Charleston, S.C. Some skeletons, for instance, were found with holes in the collar bones, a sign that the person was forced to carry very heavy loads.

But the find also touched off a battle that pitted the federal government's desire to complete a long-delayed building project against the sensitivities of African-Americans. Even after the government bowed to political pressure and agreed to preserve the burial plot, the effort to rebury the remains bogged down in wrangling over the details.

It all began in 1991, when the General Services Administration began preliminary work on a $276 million, 34-story federal office tower at 290 Broadway, near Duane Street. Early on, archaeologists working for the agency stumbled upon part of an 18th-century cemetery, once known as the Negros Burial Ground, that is believed to hold as many as 20,000 bodies.

Historians had believed that little remained of the burial ground, which covered what was then a desolate five-acre patch on the outskirts of New York. City maps showed that portions of the cemetery had been paved over as early as the late 18th century.

As it turned out, the remains had been protected by nearly 20 feet of landfill deposited on the site during the early 19th century. Workers first found rotting wooden coffins, then actual remains, virtually intact.

The G.S.A.'s initial plan was to simply exhume the bodies and continue construction, which had fallen badly behind schedule. But after an outcry from blacks and preservationists — joined by Mayor David N. Dinkins and members of Congress — the agency agreed to redraw the blueprints for the building. It eliminated plans for an underground parking garage and a four-story pavilion that was supposed to be built over the graves.

The agency agreed to preserve a portion of the area that was originally dug up and use a section of it to rebury the 419 sets of remains that had been uncovered. More than 200 remains were left untouched.

A federal committee was set up in late 1992 to help decide the future of the African Burial Ground, as it was now called. By then, the scientists involved realized they had a significant discovery on their hands.

But after many African-Americans argued that G.S.A. archaeologists could not have the proper reverence for the remains, the federal committee ordered that they be turned over for study to a black team, led by Dr. Michael Blakey, at Howard University. Scientists there would also examine more than 1.5 million artifacts of everyday life, from pottery and glassware to tools and children's toys, that had been recovered at the site.

By decade's end, however, more than $20 million had been spent on the study and memorial project, with no progress made toward the main goal, a reburial. There were charges of foot-dragging and neglect.

"The problems just symbolize the problems for people of African descent in this country," said Ayo Harrington, who heads Friends of the African Burial Ground, a private group that has voiced frustration with the G.S.A. In 2001, a new agency administrator made completing the project a priority.

Dr. Blakey's team has finished a draft of an 800-page report on their findings. Among their conclusions: About half of the remains were from children. They estimate that in the 1700's, when blacks made up as much as one-fifth of the city's population, more than half died at birth or in the first few years of life.

Scientists numbered the remains as they uncovered them. Burial No. 25 was a woman with a musket ball in her rib cage. No. 340 was a woman in her late 40's wearing a girdle of glass beads, possibly from Africa.

The events that begin tomorrow in New York actually culminate six days of festivities that began earlier in the week in Washington. Four sets of remains, those of a man, a woman, a boy and a girl, were sent this week on a tour through Washington, Baltimore, Wilmington, Del., Philadelphia, Newark, and finally New York.

Tomorrow morning, the four coffins will arrive at South and Wall Streets, the site of Colonial New York's slave market. They will then join roughly a third of the remains on caissons and proceed up Broadway to the burial ground. The four coffins will be taken in a hearse to ceremonies in each of the five boroughs, before returning to be reburied on Saturday at 1:15 p.m. A permanent memorial, as well as an educational center, is planned for the site.

Yesterday at the burial site, workers applied the finishing touches to the crypts that the coffins will be placed in, and painted the derrick that will be used to lower them into the ground.

Among those in the black work crew was Carl Williams. It was Mr. Williams's construction firm that was helping archaeologists excavate the site 12 years ago when the remains were discovered. More than a decade later, his company was asked to return to handle the reburial.

Mr. Williams, 56, who is from Trinidad, said his crew had been hard at work for the last two weeks. He takes pride, he said, in having found a way to serve these people who carry so much significance.

On Saturday, many people might still be angry, he said, that it had taken so long. "I will be happy," he said. "And proud."

The New York Times

October 4, 2003

Remains of Colonial - Era Blacks Are Buried


Filed at 9:42 p.m. ET

NEW YORK (AP) -- In a ceremony both somber and celebratory, the remains of 419 colonial-era blacks were reburied Saturday at a Manhattan site just a short distance from a former slave market.

``Now we've come to the time when mother earth receives again the remains of our departed ancestors,'' the Rev. James Forbes Jr. said as some in the crowd hugged and wept on the gray, rainy day.

Most of the remains were placed into seven oversized wooden crypts, with flowers piled atop and around each one. A Yoruba priest gave them a final blessing before the crypts were lowered into the ground.

Four caskets holding the remains of a boy, girl, woman and man also were buried. Their remains had been separated from the others and were honored at ceremonies in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Wilmington, Del., and Newark, N.J., before returning to New York on Friday.

The remains had been uncovered in 1991 during construction of a federal office tower in lower Manhattan.

Under pressure from the community, the government abandoned the work and began examining what they had found. The site turned out to be a five-acre burial ground that had been closed in 1794 and long forgotten. It was the final resting place for an estimated 20,000 people of African descent.

The reinterment ceremony marked the end of a long struggle to have the African Burial Ground recognized.<0/p>

Drummers pounded a steady beat and dancers performed while the remains were returned to where they were first buried more than 200 years ago.

``It's magnificent,'' said Ayo Harrington, chairwoman of Friends of the African Burial Ground, an informal advocacy group. ``It's exhilarating and satisfying to my soul.''

Hundreds of people turned out to pay tribute to the slaves and free blacks in the cemetery. The weather was perfect for the event, said the Rev. Herbert Daughtry, a civil-rights activist.

``It would seem to be incongruous to come to this occasion in bright and radiant sunshine,'' Daughtry said.

The ceremony, with its mix of singers, dancers and speakers, was in stark contrast to the hard lives led by the blacks buried there. Nearly half of the 419 sets of remains belong to children.

Among those addressing the crowd were poet Maya Angelou, actresses Phylicia Rashad and Cicely Tyson, and actors Avery Brooks and Delroy Lindo.

``Who will sing their songs, dance their dances, and hear their stories?'' Lindo asked the crowd.

Many of those attending felt a rush of emotions.

``Two of the feelings that stick out the most are pride and mourning,'' said Quitman Archibel, 42, of Rochester. ``I'm proud to have seen the connection I have with these ancestors, and I feel pain for what they went through.''

Many in the crowd carried red, black and green flags symbolic of Africa as drummers dressed in traditional African kente cloth provided a musical backdrop for the ceremony. The Harlem Boys Choir also performed.

The burial ground, when it was active, was actually located outside the city limits. On Friday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg noted that the nearby South Street Seaport, now a tourist attraction, was once the site where slaves were auctioned.


On the Net: African Burial Ground:

The New York Times

October 4, 2003

Honoring the Slaves of New York

Historians and community groups have been pressing the federal government for more than a decade to rebury the remains of more than 400 Africans whose graves were accidentally uncovered during the building of a federal office tower in Lower Manhattan in 1991. After years of delays and missed deadlines, the last of the skeletons returned to New York yesterday for a series of ceremonies leading up to a reburial service today in what is left of the Colonial-era African Burial Ground on lower Broadway. The four coffins came ashore at Wall Street, near the city's first slave market and probably the place where Africans left slave ships in chains.

The accidental discovery of the African Burial Ground, which originally contained 10,000 to 20,000 bodies, came as a shock to people who grew up believing that New York had always been a free state and that slavery had been confined to the downy white cotton fields of the South.

New Yorkers have since learned that the 17th-century Dutch, who founded the colony known as New Amsterdam, actually lured settlers by promising to furnish them with slaves, who subsequently helped to build Trinity Church, the streets of the city and the wall — from which Wall Street takes its name — that protected the colony from invasion.

The remains were removed in 1993 to Howard University in Washington, where a team of biological anthropologists led by Dr. Michael Blakey has studied them exhaustively. The grim data have dispelled the commonly held belief that slavery in the North was less harsh than its Southern counterpart. Of the more than 400 skeletons studied in this project, about 40 percent are of children under the age of 15 — most of whom died of malnutrition and suffered from diseases like rickets, scurvy and anemia. The environment was so hostile that some anguished mothers ended their children's lives.

By the time all the findings have been fully examined, the men, women and children of the African Burial Ground will have rewritten the book on slavery. We owe them a dignified and carefully considered permanent memorial.

To get that, the General Services Administration, which controls the site, may need to reopen a design competition, which was poorly administered and prematurely closed.