William & Mary

Dignity for the Living

Michael Blakey is poised to advance the scope of African diasporic scholarship through the Institute for Historical Biology at William and Mary. Photo by David Williard.It was almost a perfect day for Michael Blakey as he followed the horse-drawn hearse along New York City’s Broadway with the procession celebrating the reinterment of 18th-century remains in Manhattan’s African Burial Ground. Drumbeats heralded the coffins as the Rites of Ancestral Return were conducted. The media respectfully recorded the sacred progression, and the world shared a humanity far more complete than the one to which it was accustomed.

Almost perfect: “Yet, as we were marching, there were some of these stereo-type Wall-Street men with their suits and a very arrogant manner that spoke of their attitude, questioning ‘Why are we being impeded by this?’” Blakey noticed. “They were walking through the crowd of children roughly and disruptively, clearly uncomfortable with what was proceeding before them.”

Blakey’s words came in slow phrases measured against the tortured cultural memory that the world would banish. One sensed the frustration surging through veins taut against his almond skin. For an instant it seemed as if he would rise from his seat in the newly established Institute for Historical Biology at William and Mary he had founded and bang his fists on the table. He resisted. There was only his careful enunciation.

“Those persons in that instance certainly did not realize their humanity,” he said. “Certainly they did not realize their dignity.

“Other Euro-Americans who were standing there began walking with us. They clearly respected what was going on. Fortunately there were more of the latter than of the former.”

Michael Blakey is poised to advance the scope of African diasporic scholarship through the Institute for Historical Biology at William and Mary. Photo by David Williard.


The African Burial Ground
The first record of the cemetery appears in 1712, when reports refer to it in association with the executions of participants in an African rebellion. Its use officially ended in 1794. Comprising nearly six acres, the cemetery is estimated to hold at least 20,000 bodies. Research on the excavation site was led by Blakey, who, at the time, was associated with the W. Montague Cobb Biological Anthropology Laboratory at Howard University.
Blakey, a self-described African diasporic scholar, had been working as lead scientist at the African Burial Ground in Manhattan for 10 years. He first became informed about the site in October 1991 when the New York Times reported that 12 bodies had been uncovered during excavation for the proposed 35-story federal office tower being overseen by the General Services Administration (GSA)—12 skeletons; barely enough to catch his interest. Three days later, two black journalists contacted him—“acting more as concerned community activists than as reporters,” Blakey recalled—to suggest that the GSA was not being forthright with the black community. They asked him to look into the matter. By December, more than 200 skeletons had been uncovered. When he arrived in March 1992, the number had risen to 300—the most ever unearthed at an 18th-century African burial site. Blakely sensed an incredible opportunity to further fuse the history of blacks in New York with the history of America.

“History is political,” Blakey said, explaining his desire. “History is used as a means of convincing people; of social control even. The diasporic scholars have been engaged in research motivated not by the need to discover new information but motivated by the need to correct the distortions and fill in the omissions, knowing how that was needed by the communities to be healthy and wise.”

Meanwhile, tension between the GSA and concerned community groups was increasing; the skeletal remains were being excavated with a haste that was disturbing. The community finally forced a Congressional hearing on the project in 1992. When Congress determined that the GSA was in violation of the National Historic Preservation Act for operating without an approved scientific research design—“they were excavating without a roadmap,” Blakey said—the project was halted. By October 1992 when it resumed, Blakey had been named scientific director.

 This skull of a 15-to 20-year-old male was excavated from the African Burial Grounds. It reveals diseases indicative of nutritional stress, according to researchers.

During the next 10 years, Blakey coordinated research of the site and its remains among teams of physical archaeologists, historians, anthropologists and others. Together, they have reconstructed a world of slavery in New York that rivaled in its harshness the most vile conditions found in the Caribbean or elsewhere.

In 60 percent of the specimens, evidence revealed torn muscles, indicating that both men and women were worked “to the margin of capacity of their skeletons,” Blakey said. Sophisticated analytical techniques revealed widespread malnutrition, anemia and infections. “Women are mostly dead by age 35,” Blakey said. “Very few lived longer.” Likewise, mortality peaked for men between 15 years and 25 years.

Comparing the findings with census data indicating the birth of less than one child per couple, he continued, “they were worked hard at the expense of fertility, at the expense of life; they were worked to death.”

The hard scientific evidence dovetails with the historical evidence. The wide-open nature of the slave trade during this period made it cheaper to acquire replacement slaves than to adequately care for those in possession. Because the enslaved were being imported, “the psychological trauma of people experiencing slavery for the first time” and the process of “adapting to the cold weather” contributed to early mortality, Blakey said. Other documents point to the slave insurrections which occurred in New York in 1712 and 1741: Following those events, severe measures were meted out. Oakley considered five skeletal heads uncovered apart from any body structure. He wondered: “Had these been severed and mounted along the streets on poles as a warning to others?”

Another document suggests that one woman, in defiance of the system, killed her newborn child. “She did not want to bring a child into this hellish situation,” he said. “The more we understand this system, the more sympathetic one can be with that woman—the more sympathy I feel for that woman.”

In contrast to the hard existence endured by the enslaved, the graveyard became a place where their lives were celebrated, evidenced by the uncovering of shroud pins indicating careful wrapping of the bodies and by the placement of prized possessions such as glass beads and waist beads with the corpses. Indeed, one child, Blakey observed, was buried with a silver earbob that would have been worth a considerable amount to those who survived him.

“During slavery, when every effort is being made by Europeans to convince themselves and the enslaved that the enslaved are not quite human, that they are property, that they are chattel—and they’re doing that by changing their names, by denying them their languages, their religion and their clothing—these Africans are resisting,” Blakey said. “And the cemetery is the place where, if you really want to deny those who claim that you’re not human, you do that by the burial of the dead. The African Burial Ground is clearly a place where the Africans buried their dead carefully. And it’s one of the few places where they could get together in groups of more than three and have some of their rituals that reinforce their humanity.“

Blakey admitted that the reinterment brought a sense of personal closure. “Just to be with all of those young kids in school uniforms during the procession was special,” he said. “They were receiving something that will be important for them.”

For him, the harder work remains.

He hopes to do much of it at William and Mary, where he envisions the Institute for Historical Biology becoming a place where findings from the African Burial Ground will be put into a database supporting inquiries by graduates and undergraduates from archaeological, sociological and cultural perspectives. He believes that the College, despite the fact that it is attended predominantly by Euro-Americans, is a viable site for the institute due to the expressed support of faculty members and William and Mary’s “strong sense of identity.” From here, he hopes, diasporic scholarship can extend to others—like those black kids in school uniforms—a history that is worthy of their status as Americans.

His voice again seemed overcautious; he sought the proper words; he tested them, one by one, as a person who has come through a battle and now must describe the war.

“The hard thing is to address our common history,” he said. “Although the history books are changing a little bit, by and large even those who are going to school in New York read about no African presence in the 18th century. When you take African Americans out of history, you suppress all of those questions about racism and slavery. What we need to do is to open up that dialogue and start answering those questions.

“The fact of the matter is that much of our received history is untrue. It’s convenient to an identity that Euro-America has created in which the management of human capital contributed far less to the creation of Euro-American wealth than the facts will admit.

“Alternatively, the condition of blacks can be more easily explained as the result of the privilege—the continued privilege—of whites,” he continued. “Those issues of history are not going to be resolved without an honest look at who we were and at who we are. And that is hard. That challenges identity.”