The African Burial Ground National Monument at 290 Broadway marks the oldest African burial site in North America. As the city began to expand, the cemetery was built over and forgotten until 1991, when the remains of over 419 freed and enslaved Africans were discovered during the construction of a federal office building. The burial ground spans nearly 7 acres from the northern edge of City Hall Park to Chambers Street and Broadway, to the Municipal Building at Chambers and Centre Street, then north on Centre to Duane Street.
The Manhattan slave trade began with the Dutch settlers in 1626 when the Dutch West India Company began importing its first slaves from West Africa. Unlike the English, the Dutch allowed slaves to reach partial to full freedom status. Freed slaves were allowed to marry and buy land, and they soon began purchasing land in the area between City Hall and 34th Street. When the British took control of Manhattan in 1664, however, slaves were stripped of many of the rights they were given under Dutch rule, including the right to bury their dead in churchyards. After this ban, Africans began using this area, which was just outside of the city’s limits–as a cemetery. It is estimated that over 20,000 were interred in the 7-acre plot between 1690-1794.
It was found in 1788 that the Burial Ground was being desecrated by medical students and doctors for medical purposes. Because acquiring corpses for educational purposes was both difficult and virtually unheard of at the time, fresh bodies were exhumed from the cemetery in the winter of 1788 at an alarming rate. When a group of freedmen noticed the students and physicians–who at the time were referred to as Resurrectionists–they petitioned the city council to take action against it, but their request was ignored.
In April 1788 citizens stormed New York Hospital, where the dissections were held, and widespread rioting soon broke out. The few remaining physicians in the city were forced into hiding when a mob of 2,000 people gathered on Broadway in an attempt to find John Hicks, a medical student whom they felt was to blame for the atrocities. Militia and cavalry were called to break up the crowd and repel the protesters. As a result of the incident, public opinion of New York City physicians remained low for decades. In 1789, a statute was passed to punish those who violated the laws against the proper treatment of corpses. Despite the implementation of the law, however, the atrocities continued.
The Burial Ground became a National Historic Landmark in 1993. In 2005, the GSA chose architect Rodney Leon’s design for the memorial on the corner of Duane and Elk Streets, which is 25-foot granite monument that features a map of the Atlantic in reference to the Middle Passage, the stage in the triangular trade in which slaves were transported from Africa to North America. In 2006, President George W. Bush designated the burial site a National Monument.
|1690||Area became cemetery|
|1788||Residents storm New York Hospital|
|1993||Burial ground becomes National Historic Landmark|
|2005||Rodney Leon’s granite monument is installed|
|2006||Declared National Monument|