This book seems to have been designed as a textbook for an African American Studies program, but that’s not a bad thing. Whenever the Hugheses get down to the business of discussing black history, I learned things I’ve never seen discussed anywhere else. However, everything is viewed through the lens of race (as opposed to cemetery history). When the authors lament the destruction of historic black cemeteries, they don’t step away from their topic enough to see the destruction of all cemeteries that stand in the way of land developers or freeway construction. The guarantor of destruction is not race, but class. Poor Irish, poor Polish, poor Chilean, poor Chinese: if communities could not afford permanent markers or perpetual care for their dead, the dead were at risk of being evicted or paved over.
That said, the Hugheses made remarkable efforts to locate living historians in the African American communities they visited, whether those people were morticians, academicians, or storytellers. These stories, in the tellers’ own words, provide a wealth of detail missing in many dryer cemetery tomes.
Also included in the book is a vast amount of information on how to do genealogical research. The combination seems like a natural, but I haven’t seen it anywhere else.
The major drawback to the book is the muddiness of the illustrations. I’m not convinced that the photographs were taken intentionally as illustrations. No care seems to have been taken with the lighting or focus. Still, though, they cover subject matter collected nowhere else.
African Burial Ground National Monument
Duane Street, between Broadway and African Burial Ground Way/Elk Street
Manhattan, New York 10007
Telephone: (212) 637-2019 Opened to the public: October 5, 2007 Size: 6.6 acres is the estimated size of the entire burial ground. Number of Interments: 419 inside the monument. Up to 20,000 may have once been buried in the surrounding area. Undoubtedly, some of them are still there. Open: The monument is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The visitor center at 290 Broadway is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Both are closed on Federal holidays. Admission: free. However, you must pass through security to see the visitor center or the exhibits inside the Ted Weiss Federal Building. No food or drink allowed.
As early as 1626, the Dutch imported Africans to work as slaves in New Amsterdam, now known as Manhattan. Technically owned by the Dutch East India Company, these Africans could own property, be baptized, and marry. In 1644, 11 male Africans won their freedom and control of the 100 acres they had been farming, but they had to continue to pay taxes in the form of crops to the Company. Their children were still enslaved.
When the British took over and renamed the island New York in 1664, slave laws became more stringent. As much as a quarter of the colonial workforce was enslaved. Africans were brought from the countries now called Sierra Leone, Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria, Mozambique, and Madagascar. They spoke a variety of languages and practiced different religions. Most suffered from malnutrition and injuries from overwork.
There seems to be no surviving record of when the burial ground was first used, but The Graveyard Shift: A Family Historian’s Guide to New York City Cemeteries suggests it might date from 1697, when Trinity Church began to prohibit the burial of Africans in its churchyard. Until the late 1700s, the “Negros Buriel Ground” – as it was labeled on maps from the second half of the 18th century – was the only graveyard allowed for the African population. The dead were wrapped in shrouds, placed in wooden coffins, and buried with their heads pointing toward the west. Some were buried with beads or coins on their eyes.
Used as a potter’s field, then serving the British as a graveyard for their prisoners during the Revolutionary War, the burial ground officially closed in 1794. After that, a pottery manufacturer used the area as a dump. In 1792, Chambers Street was cut across the cemetery grounds. In 1795, lots were developed and sold. The burial ground was buried and forgotten.
…Until 1991, when the United States General Services Administration broke ground for a new federal courthouse and office building in Lower Manhattan. The contractors were surprised when they began to come across graves 16 to 25 feet below street level. (I’m told that construction on the island of Manhattan is required to excavate as much weight below as the building above will add, in order not to add too much weight and sink the island. I’m not sure that’s true, but it does explain the seven sub-basements below the World Trade Center.) Once anthropologists took over, they estimated that up to 20,000 Africans were buried in an area that once covered as many as five city blocks.
Lay Down Body: Living History in African American Cemeteries reported on the struggle between archaeologists who wanted to excavate the anthropological relics with “dental pick and toothbrush” and the government contractors who preferred to use a backhoe. In the end, parts of 419 skeletons went to Howard University in Washington, D.C. for forensic analysis.
Since the burial ground was significant in both regional and national history, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. A tiny fragment of the graveyard was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1993. The Graveyard Shift reported in 1998 that the remains were supposed to be returned to New York for reburial under a memorial pavilion on the original site.
When I visited in 2002, I was thrilled to see mention of the African Burial Ground Historic District atop the street signs. For once, it seemed that a forgotten cemetery was getting the respect it deserved. When I finally tracked down the remnant of the burial ground on my last morning in New York City, I found only a painted wooden sign listing a few brief facts inside a chain-link fence around a small patch of grass across from the Javits Federal Building. The reburial ceremony had been derailed by September 11, 2001.
Extra coffin inside the visitor’s center.
Finally in October 2003, a traditional African burial ceremony took place. The remains were placed in coffins handmade in Ghana and accompanied to the monument site by dancers, singers, and priests.
President George W. Bush signed a proclamation in February 2006, which designated the burial site as a National Monument. The U.S. National Park Service took over management of the site at that point. The memorial was finally dedicated in 2007. Maya Angelou and Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke.
Currently, the Park Service mans an Interpretive Center and gift shop on the first floor of the Ted Weiss Federal Building, located at 290 Broadway, between Duane and Reade Streets. This Visitors Center houses a small museum, which discusses the history of Africans in the colonial era. One wall displays archeological photographs of the gravesites. There are the stories the bones can tell us and a record of the grave goods, but everything tangible has been returned to the ground now. “The African Burial Ground,” the Park Service’s brochure says, “is widely acknowledged as one of America’s most significant archeological finds of the 20th century.” It’s good that this museum exists as a record of it.
Next door, inside the Ted Weiss building proper are more exhibits about the burial ground, but I’d visited too late in the day to see them.
Map showing the complete African Burial Ground
Around behind the building lies the African Burial Ground National Monument itself. First you come upon seven small mounds, which cover the vaults in which the remains were placed. The site includes “The Circle of the Diaspora,” a spiral map of the world surrounded by African symbols and religious talismans from many faiths. The final part of the monument is the 24-foot black stone “Ancestral Libation Chamber,” designed by Architect Rodney Leon.
The monument and visitors center are sobering reminders of the sacrifices forced upon the people who built this country. Plan to leave time to meditate or pray at the site.
Although this book is a Junior Library Guild Selection—meaning that the text is written at a level suitable for children—the chapter headings seemed intriguing (Defining Death, Understanding Death, What Happens to Corpses, How to Contain the Remains, Where Corpses End Up). In her preface, though, Colman wrote of attempting to avoid the queasiness with which a reader might approach discussions of death. That was a warning to me. I want the dirt on death: the facts, the history, and lots of pictures.
The illustrations in this book are worth the price of admission. A photo from the Library of Congress depicts a surgeon embalming a solider during the Civil War. Another from the same source shows a Native American scaffold burial in 1912. Colman photographed a grave in Mt. Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C., which is covered in seashells, “a tradition brought to America by enslaved Africans.” One page of photos traces the development of tombstone adornment in the U.S. A more recent grave sports two parking meters, both permanently set to read “Expired.” The most beautiful photographs in the book come from the ossuary near Kutná Hora in Czechoslovakia where human bones are used to create an enormous chandelier and a family crest. Stuff like that is more of a guidebook to me than a reference work.
Colman spends too much time for my taste on deaths in her experience, from her beloved Grammie to her great uncle Willi. Still, she does pass on some knowledge about death that I was unaware of. The Egyptians originally used a type of stone in their coffins that they believed had the power to eat flesh, hence the term sarcophagi, “flesh-eating.” The use of “potter’s field” to refer to a graveyard for paupers traces back to a field near Jerusalem where potters dug clay. The Jewish High Priests purchased it with the 30 pieces of silver returned by Judas. The ground was used to bury strangers. During the French Revolution, lead coffins were unearthed and melted down for bullets. A tree grows behind Harriet Tubman’s grave, planted due to a tradition brought here by Africans. They believed that if the tree thrived, the soul must be thriving also. Colman discusses methods for outwitting premature burial and the ages at which children accept the finality of death.
Unfortunately, large passages of this book are quoted directly from How We Die, Death to Dust and other references. It felt to me as if Colman had rushed to finish the book, not taking time to research things in person. It made me wonder why I wasn’t reading Death to Dust itself, instead of this abridged version.
However, as a book to introduce children to the fascination death holds, Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts is harmless. One of my favorite passages is a quote from George Bernard Shaw about his awe at watching his mother’s cremation: “The feet burst miraculously into streaming ribbons of garnet-colored flame, smokeless and eager … and my mother became that beautiful fire.” If kids don’t fall in love with death after that, there’s no use in trying.
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