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Feb 16, 2012 | Commission on Black Ministry

Black History Month Remembers African Burial Ground

Around the time of the Revolutionary War, New York City was home to the largest urban community of slaves outside of Charleston, South CarolinaThese slaves worked as skilled artisans and craftsmen, associated specifically with shipping, construction and other trades, as well as working as domestic servants and laborers. The lives and contributions of many of the slaves went somewhat unnoticed, until plans to construct a new federal building near City Hall in downtown Manhattan were underway.  As the land was being prepared for the new building, the remains of more than 400 former slaves and free colonial-era African Americans were exposed, and the largest colonial-era cemetery for enslaved Africans in America was unearthed.  Scientific studies would reveal that other parts of the five acre burial ground, where approximately 20,000 Africans were buried, had been previously disregarded as buildings, streets and parking lots were continuously constructed over the site. As plans to continue construction went forth, a civic meeting was held to discuss the recognition and preservation of the uncovered remains of African descendants. 


NYC - Civic Center: African Burial Ground National Monument

Pallbearers carried the remains that had been taken from the burial ground back to the same site in hand-carved caskets from Ghana.
Designer Rodney Leon discusses the new memorial at the African Burial Ground National Monument on Oct. 1, 2007, in New York City. A sign designates the honorary name of the street that runs past the African Burial Ground Memorial site. A little more than two years after the reinterment, in February, 2006.


Credit: GETTY IMAGES/Mario Tama


Trinity Episcopal Church, now known as Trinity, Wall Street, offered to be the host site for discussions and a plan of action. These discussions laid the groundwork to alter the original architectural plans of the federal building to include a memorial site and for a study of the remains by Howard University in Washington, D.C.  In October 2003, a memorial celebration was held and the remains were ceremoniously transported from Washington, D.C. back to the new African Burial Ground Memorial in New York City. The caskets were brought ashore from a barge at the point where Wall Street meets the East River, which was the site of the city's first slave market during British rule. Men dressed in colonial attire pounded drums as a colorful procession including hand-carved coffins drawn by horses, travelled down Broadway and through the "Canyon of Heroes" for reburial. As the coffins passed by, Trinity Church tolled its bells as a sign of respect. Trinity’s connection to the reburial celebration ran deeper than serving as host site for discussions and bell tolling. Based upon documents from its archives, slavery was very much a part of early church life. These documents would also give another glimpse of African slaves who contributed to the economy, development and culture of America.


Church records reveal Trinity Church’s connection to slavery in the areas of slave labor, catechizing, education and burial segregation.



In 1696, a group of New York City laymen purchased land from the Lutheran community to build an Anglican Church.  Managers were appointed to oversee the construction plans and with their notes from meetings on this disbursement of funds, the use of enslaved labor was revealed.  These notes also indicated that many of the managers, who were slaveholders, also employed slaves to work on the construction project of the church. In the archives of Trinity Church, a contract with a mason, Derick Vandergurgh, dated June 3, 1696, states, “…..Vanderburgh is to furnish managers for use of Trinity Church…. his own Negro, Jack Jaman’s Negro and ye Negro ….at three shillings per diem.” The first Trinity Church building which slaves helped to build, was burned down in the Great Fire of 1776 and was rebuilt between 1788 and 1790, while slavery was still legal in New York.  Trinity vestry minutes do not indicate whether enslaved persons were employed for the second construction project.



The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) was established in 1701 to evangelize throughout British-occupied territories. French Huguenot and cloth merchant, Elias Neau urged the SPG to address the needs of a catechist for the many Africans in New York City.  The SPG agreed to offer support and Neau began to teach the classes. Many slaveholders opposed the classes because they felt that Baptism and catechizing would interfere with their property rights and feared this would lead to the freedom of slaves.  In 1711, slaveholders blamed Neau for a slave uprising and in 1713 a law was passed forbidding slaves from walking at night with a candle or lantern. Many felt this law was used to discourage blacks from attending Neau’s classes, since they were held at night when the slaves were done with their work.  When Neau died, catechization continued through the SPG under the backing of Trinity Church. In vestry minutes from July 1726 it was noted that a number of the 1400 Indian and Negro slaves in New York were instructed in Christianity, received baptism and were communicants of Trinity Church. 



In 1785, the New York State Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves was organized to oppose slavery laws and assist educating African Americans. John Jay, Trinity churchwarden (who became the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and later governor of New York) was president of the society.  Trinity member and first Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, Alexander Hamilton was also a society member. In 1787, Trinity provided the land behind St. George’s Chapel in downtown Manhattan for a school for African American children both enslaved and free.  By 1814, The African Free School was providing education to over 100 African American children.



It is suggested that the founding of a segregated African Burial Ground outside city limits was a consequence of prohibitions on the burial of people of African descent in Trinity’s churchyards. Archives reveal contradicting information on burials of African Americans. It seems that on some occasions provisions were made for burying slaves in parish churchyards if the slave was a communicant.  But they also periodically enforced a policy which did not allow burials with the bounds of the church yardAfter Trinity was established and began taking control of land in Lower Manhattan in 1697, one of its actions was to take over existing public burial grounds. On July 3, 1697, the vestry gave notice to drivers and haulers "That noe Carmen shall after notice given Digg or carry away any ground or Earth from behind the English Church & burying ground." This noticed was believed to be directed to slaveholders who were burying their slaves behind the public burying ground. 


The churchyard referred to in the 1697 minutes did not include an old burial ground to the north of the church (which is now Trinity's north churchyard). Seventy years later, Trinity's vestry resolved to designate a piece of the Church Farm as a "Burial ground for the Negros." The spot chosen was bounded by Church Street, Reade Street, Chapple Street (West Broadway), and "Anthony Rutgers' land." The lot was located a few blocks west and directly parallel to the current African Burial Ground memorial site. By May 27, 1784, the Trinity churchyard was so crowded with burials that it was difficult to inter new coffins and burials were being dug only three feet deep. Consequently, the vestry restricted burials to people whose family members were already interred in the Trinity churchyard and to vaults.


On April 12, 1790, the vestry minutes again banned burials of African-Americans. The wording of the ban implied that African-Americans had continued to be buried both at Trinity and St. Paul's, in spite of the 1697 ban and in spite of the burial ground set aside specifically for black burials in 1773. In the 1790s, the public African Burial Ground and the Trinity African Burial Ground closed, probably succumbing to the northward push of city development.  The vestry resolved to level Trinity's "Negro Burial Ground" on August 19, 1795. By 1797 the lots into which the burial ground had been divided were leased. In the minutes of 1801, the vestry resolved that the children of black communicants "may be buried in the Cemeteries of the Several Churches" (Trinity and the chapels of St. Paul and St. John). The Trinity Church burial registers show that between 1801 and 1818, fourteen persons of color, aged from six months to 83 years at the time of death, were buried at both Trinity Church and St. Paul's. By 1822, the question was moot as all burials in Lower Manhattan were forbidden.


The African Burial excavation site and study is considered the most important historic urban archeological project in the United States. It also has been designated as a National Historic Landmark and National Monument. As the memorial service of the 419 remains ended with singing, dancing music, prayers, laughter and tears, a tribute was given by award-winning poet and civil rights activist, Dr. Maya Angelou. Speaking on behalf of the long dead African Ancestors, she began “You may bury me in the bottom of Manhattan. I will rise. My people will get me. I will rise out of the huts of history’s shame.”  Trinity Church and its connection to African slaves revealed a history which for some time remained buried with the bodies at the lower Manhattan burial site.  But the construction of a new federal building gave rise to another glimpse of their history.  It connected the life of those individuals who were once forgotten to the history of Trinity Church and to each of us today.