Slaves' remains reveal stories of their ordeal Howard collection oldest in N. America

February 10, 1997|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The fractures begin in his skull, travel down his spine, radiate toward his ribs, shoot through his legs and then stop. By this time, he is dead.

This is what researchers know about a life now called Burial 171. The pile of bones belongs to an African man who died in New York City more than 200 years ago -- one of 427 skeletons that researchers are studying in a laboratory at Howard University.

Here, in a climate-controlled room, researchers are piecing together history from what is believed to be the oldest collection of remains from enslaved Africans in North America. Covered in burnt-orange dirt and mystery, the bones may have been literally worked to death.

"Most of these people were working at the margins of human physical capacity," said Michael Blakey, an associate professor of anthropology at Howard University and director of the African Burial Ground Project. "Some of these are huge, deadly fractures."

Burial 171 was not too unusual. Like others, researchers say, he probably was given a load to carry on his head that was too heavy and crumpled the bones down his body. Or, if he stumbled while carrying this weight, his spine could have ripped through his cranium and killed him. It's also possible he died from some other trauma.

Howard University now has the country's largest collection of colonial slave remains, retrieved from an African burial ground in lower Manhattan on Broadway. The site, used from 1712 to 1794, was found during construction of a 34-story federal building six years ago.

A small portion of the bones may come from free blacks or poor whites buried at the site. But scholars agree from historical accounts that the great majority were slaves. Blakey, who lobbied to bring the bones to the majority-black campus, hopes the remains will reveal new details about pre-revolutionary slavery in the North.

Northern slavery, overshadowed by its Southern counterpart, was outlawed in New York in 1827.

"Slavery, although it ended earlier [than in the South], perpetuated a similar violence against African people in the North," said A. J. Williams-Myers, who wrote a history of black people in early New York. "The remains show the violent nature of slavery itself."

Many of the researchers on the Howard project are black students and teachers who asked to do the work because of its cultural significance. On a recent day, they scrubbed the remains with toothbrushes and alcohol, dust covering their lab coats as they worked.

There are moments, researcher Ena Fox said, when the labor becomes very personal.

"Sometimes, if the skulls are intact, you realize you are looking at a face," she said. "A face. That's everything in a human being. That's where the spirit resides."

In another couple of months, skeletal studies will be completed, and dozens of researchers at Howard and across the country plan to begin more specialized DNA and chemical analysis of the bones. By 2001, the bones are to be reburied at the site in New York, with a museum and memorial erected next to the government tower.

Researchers hope the sample at the Howard lab will help them draw broader conclusions about what they believe are more than 10,000 other slaves buried at the same location.

Already, the findings are troubling. About half the bodies retrieved from the site never reached age 12, and almost half of those children never saw their second birthday.

In the grave of Burial 335, a woman's arm bones were still crooked around the tiny skeleton of a newborn when archaeologists unearthed them.

Children who lived longer were under constant strain. In many instances, the bones of the skull are prematurely fused, a cause of brain damage in malnourished youngsters. Other skulls show pits behind the eye sockets, a sign of anemia.

The bones tell of good lives gone bad. In older individuals, the teeth are unusually strong and healthy from a childhood of better nutrition in Africa, while the bones show signs of fractures from repeated exertions later in life, presumably after they reached New York, researchers say.

And, of course, the remains bear the marks of brutal labor. The bones of Burial 39, a 6-year-old whose gender is unknown, are lopsided and sloping to the left, probably because of heavy loads the youngster carried. The neck and cranium are fractured.

"It's as though this child is being treated like an animal," Blakey said.

A study of the beads, stones and trinkets buried with the dead shows that many carried with them traditions from Ghana, Angola and other areas of West Africa. One coffin is decorated with a Sarkofa pattern -- a Ghanaian symbol meaning "look to the past to inform your future."

The first slaves arrived in New York from West Africa on a Dutch ship in 1626. The slaves were named for the areas in which they were captured -- such as Paulo Angola and Simon Congo.

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