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 The study has been completed and the Schomburg Center For Research in Black Culture, an arm of the New York Public Library, organized a special reinternment tribute entitled Rites of Ancestral Return.

 

 

Rites of Ancestral Return

Tribute Honors African Remains

 

By Junious Ricardo Stanton

 

While preparing ground breaking and excavation for the construction of a new federal office building in Lower Manhattan workmen discovered the remains of a burial ground where as many as 20,000 free and enslaved Africans were interred during the Colonial Period of America.  Once the remains were discovered work ceased because black activists made an issue of stopping work by laying down in front of bulldozers because they felt the ground was sacred.

Finally the federal government agreed not to further desecrate the site and to allow researchers to catalogue the remains. However, activists fearing white researchers would be insensitive to the significance and disrespectful towards of the remains demanded an African-American research team be allowed to conduct the research.

A team from Howard University in Washington D.C. was chosen to collect the remains, catalogue, and study them. The University’s studies reveal much about the lives and deaths of many of those interred in the graves. First, they discovered many of the bodies were buried in traditional African fashion or they were buried facing home – Africa.

Many of the remains indicated severe physical strain, such as broken bones. One woman’s skeleton had a musket ball lodged in the rib cage; others revealed diseases and weariness from back breaking work. The study has been completed and the Schomburg Center For Research in Black Culture, an arm of the New York Public Library, organized a special reinternment tribute entitled Rites of Ancestral Return. Howard Dodson, the Director of the Schomburg Center, accompanied the coffins from Howard University on each stop of the tribute.

Each stop along the symbolic and ceremonial journey featured the pouring of libations, prayers, and songs as crowds turned out to pay homage to the remains of those unknown Africans: a  man, woman, and two children who received more respect and reverence hundreds of years after their deaths than they did while they were alive.

From Washington, the tribute moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where ceremonies were held at the Willard W. Allen Masonic Temple. From there they traveled to the African Union Church in Wilmington, Delaware for an evening service.

On Thursday, the entourage arrived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for an ecumenical service at historic Mother Bethel AME Church, which was founded by Richard Allen. Mother Bethel is located in the heart of what was the Colonial African Community.

The sanctuary was jammed with school children and elders, many dressed in traditional, ceremonial, or stylish African garb. From Mother Bethel the four hand-carved African mahogany coffins were carried two blocks north to Washington Square, one time known as Congo Square, for symbolic interment.

The next leg of the journey was a 6 PM evening service in Newark, New Jersey at Bethany Baptist Church. On Friday the coffins ferried to New York, arriving at the Wall Street pier and taken to the Wall Street site of the infamous Colonial New York Slave Market.

Following an all night vigil and tour of the five boroughs the remains along with the remains of 200 hundred others will be reinterred in New York.

The Philadelphia ceremony was moving, reverent, and deeply spiritual. Following the ceremony in Congo Square the remains were placed on a bus for transport to Newark, New Jersey. A tribute reception and repast was held at the African American Museum at 701 Arch several blocks north of Congo Square. 

 

Rev. Eyele Yetunde participated in the ecumenical service at Mother Bethel. For her it was an emotional experience.

“It’s a time of celebration because it was a home going. It was a time of mourning because the foundation of this country was built on the oppression of our ancestors and it’s a reminder of the fact we still have along way to go. "It was also a beautiful thing to see how everybody in our community came together here in Philadelphia in this ecumenical service to remember the fact that we have to reclaim that which is ours, to remember the cultural significance of our ancestors and remember the significance of Sankofa, remembering where we came from in order to know where we are going and make sure we don’t repeat the ugly part of our history.”

Dr Michelle Strongfields, a physician currently living and working in Guyana, South America, was home for a visit, heard about the tribute and came because she said she felt compelled to come.

 “I was drawn to this. I had to come. The most significant thing for me today was I had been struggling and wrestling whether or not I wanted to return to the states and today has crystallized for me the fact that I’ll be back to pick up the tread of work that I left and see if I can connect it to what I am doing now.”

Historian Charles Blockson, an authority on African-Americans in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and the Colonial period and who has authored numerous books on African-Americans, spoke at the Mother Bethel ecumenical service, at Congo Square and at a program at the African American Museum.

“For enslaved Africans in Philadelphia we must remember that many of our African ancestors worshiped traditional gods, many were Muslims we practiced many different religions. When I was younger a relative died and they passed me over the grave, that was one of our African traditions. That was to protect the child from negative spirits. We have lost so much of our traditions. We must get back and study them.”

For many in the audience the Rites of Ancestral Return tribute was validation for a similar struggle Philadelphians are waging to honor an African burial ground and the eight enslaved Africans George Washington brought with him to Philadelphia when he served as the nation’s first president. Blockson, who has been an invaluable resource in the fight to document African-American history in negotiations with the US Park Service to get them to build a monument to all enslaved Africans in the new Liberty Bell pavilion, gave a detailed history of the contributions of African people in Colonial Philadelphia. It was a glorious day to be an African.

An Additional Note

The wooden coffins in the photos contain their actual remains. I attended the service in Philly although I arrived late.

Philly had a symbolic reinterment in Washington (Congo) Square and a lecture program at the African American Museum. In the ceremony at the sanctuary (historic Mother Bethel AME Church) the coffins were draped with real Kente Cloth, words by Dr Molefi Asante, Sonya Sanchez and the pastor Rev. Leah. The procession photos took place outside as they were preparing to go to Congo Square, the releasing of the doves was part of the reinterment ritual signifying the release of their spirits.

The photo by Chester Higgins Sacred Remains is an actual photo of the bones uncovered at the African burial ground site in New York.

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The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799-1883 

Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America

African American Grief (Death, Dying and Bereavement)

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Woman brings buried slaves dignity—25 Feb. 2011—Slaves dead more than two centuries find a champion in a local woman.—Known as slaves in life, they slept unknown for centuries in New York City. A woman from Albany started a course that brought them dignity in death. Albany native Peggy King-Jorde spoke at the Albany Civil Rights Institute Thursday on the reclamation of a massive “African burial bround” from government office development.

“There were 10,000 to 20,000 African-Americans buried in New York at this site from the 17th through the 18th centuries,” King-Jorde said. “Then it was forgotten about.” The cemetery sat on 5 1/2 acres just outside the city limits starting in the 1700s. Blacks were not allowed to be buried in the city limits. By the 18th century, the slave population in New York had grown to about 20 percent of the entire city. Only one city had a higher percentage of slaves, Charleston, S.C. So when slaves died, bodies were piled one on top of the other in graves without markers until the site was paved over and the city grew around it. . . .

In 1993, the African Burial Ground was designated a National Historic Landmark. In 2003 the unearthed remains were reburied. . . .King-Jorde credits the work of the community, activists, students and ordinary people for preserving a part of American history. “It is critical that we know as much as we can about our African ancestry,” King-Jorde said. “There is so little known about slavery on these shores at that time. That many slaves in New York City? Who heard of it?”AlbanyHerald

The skeleton above is the only one of more than 400 recovered to have her arms crossed over her chest. Researchers want to know why. Adults buried in the cemetery died in their 30s, on average, although their joints resembled those of people much older.

The Cultural Dimensions of Design—The first enslaved Africans were brought to what is now New York City (then a Dutch settlement) in 1626. By the 1700s, after the Duke of York had officially opened up the slave trade, a substantial slave population—as much as 21 percent of the whole—lived in Manhattan. The place where these enslaved Africans buried their dead, the "Negros Burying Ground," as it was derisively known, was initially located outside the city walls. By the late 1700s, however, development was already covering over portions of the graveyard. Eventually, the burial ground was all but forgotten, its location preserved to memory only through old city maps and references in two books, one published in 1827, the other in 1915. . . . Perhaps cultural amnesia explains why many New Yorkers "were shocked to learn there were enslaved people--here, in the North, and in large numbers," King Jorde says. "It wasn't well chronicled. The cemetery was buried under buildings in the city. It wasn't important to other people so its presence was obscured. African ancestry in this country has historically been obscured. Places like the African Burial Ground, places like American Beach, those are the cultural resources, the tangible reminders that tie our black community to the important values of our culture."HarvardMagazine

posted 4 October 2003 

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AALBC.com's 25 Best Selling Books


 

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#8 - Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby
#9 - The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 - Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

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#23 - Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

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#8 - The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing
#9 - The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

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#12 -The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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update 4 March 2012

 

 

 

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Related files:   African Burial Ground    African Background of the Negro