of Ancestral Return
Honors African Remains
Junious Ricardo Stanton
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.
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
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 –
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Eyele Yetunde participated in the ecumenical service at Mother
Bethel. For her it was an emotional experience.
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
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
* * * *
The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799-1883
Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in
African American Grief (Death, Dying and Bereavement)
* * * * *
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
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
4 October 2003
* * *
* * * *
Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays
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,
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'."
* * *
Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in
By Melissa V.
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.
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
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
* * * * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
* * * * *
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Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
* * * * *
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
George Jackson /
* * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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update 4 March 2012