In May 1991, three hundred years of silence were broken with the discovery of the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan. Widely recognized as one of the most important archaeological finds in twentieth century America, it redefined the history of New York and presented a historical heritage that had been shamefully overlooked for centuries. Two decades were devoted to the documentation and interpretation of the site, and when it was finally all in order, monuments were raised in memory of the people who had been buried there with nothing more than rags to protect them. More than 400 skeletons of men, women and children, all slaves, were found, highlighting the shameful treatment of Africans not only in the city of New York, but all across the American nation.
Slavery in New York began in the seventeenth century when the Dutch West India Company started bringing Africans to what was then the colony of New Amsterdam to work as slaves. Emancipated in 1827, they were integrated very gradually to the social fabric of the city, but things moved slowly and weren't easy for them. The skeletal remains discovered showed that life was dangerous for Africans in New York; almost nine percent of the burials were children under two years old, a shockingly high mortality rate when compared with the rest of the population. It is not surprising if we consider malnutrition, the exhausting work and continuous diseases and epidemics. Upon discovering the tombs, some cultural continuity between the New World and Africa was also found. For example, bodies were buried with some grain to serve as food in the afterlife, as well as seashells, which reflected the belief that they could help enclose and protect the immortal soul.
A memorial designed by Rodney Leon was opened in 2007, consisting of a circle in the style of African tribal councils surrounded by a wall with written signs, symbols and images of the African Diaspora. Underneath, though only open on special occasions, a kind of crypt honors all the dead slaves who were found under the city, and a Wall of Remembrance describes the events that contributed to the creation of the African Burial Ground. The exact locations of the pits where the bodies were exhumed are marked with four pillars. This is a place you should visit, if only to look at a haunting reminder of the pain and suffering of the thousands of slaves who built America.