Remains of slaves traveling on journey of remembrance

Re-interment: A procession passes through Baltimore and ends tomorrow in New York, where the bodies were originally buried centuries ago.

October 02, 2003|By Matt Whittaker | Matt Whittaker,SUN STAFF

They yearned for Africa but were enslaved in Colonial New York.

Now, housed in coffins made from wood hewn in their homeland, the remains of four former slaves made their way through Baltimore yesterday on a journey back up the East Coast to be reburied more than 300 years after their deaths.

Commemorating Colonial African heritage, the procession -- called the Rites of Ancestral Return -- is moving the remains of four slaves who were among 419 unearthed in 1991 after being discovered at a New York construction site.

At the Willard W. Allen Masonic Temple at 1307 Eutaw Place yesterday afternoon, Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele used the procession's second stop to urge the several hundred African-Americans present to remember their history and to work for change.

The ceremony "reminds us of people we have long since forgotten about and hopefully inspires us to ... act," Steele said. "We cannot afford to re-enslave ourselves by forgetting."

After being studied at a lab at Howard University in Washington, the remains departed the nation's capital Tuesday and came to Baltimore yesterday afternoon before moving on to their anticipated destinations of Wilmington, Del.; Philadelphia; Newark, N.J.; and finally New York tomorrow. They will be re-interred in Lower Manhattan on Saturday.

Toward the end of the 1600s, a desolate 5.5-acre plot north of Wall Street became the scene of what the African Burial Ground Project calls "mortuary apartheid."

By 1794, an estimated 20,000 people were buried at the plot, stacked in layers, because Africans at the time were forbidden from burying their dead in officially consecrated grounds.

Forgotten for centuries

"The African burial ground represents the important role and major contribution that enslaved African men, women and children made to the development of the Colonies, economy and culture of America," said Howard Dodson, the director of the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, one of the organizers of the procession. "This is a historic and crucial link in America's story."

It's a story that unfolded over centuries. As New York grew, the slave burial site was paved over and forgotten, until about a decade ago. That's when, as part of preparations for the building of a 34-story federal office building, a cultural resources survey and excavation unearthed hundreds of human skeletal remains from what a 17th-century map calls the "Negroes Burial Ground."

No laws protect the burial grounds of Africans as there are for Native American grounds, and the construction of the building continued. After concern and protests from the black community, the land was designated a national historic landmark in 1993.

The remains and some artifacts were shipped off to the W. Montague Cobb Laboratory at Howard for examination, which is complete, allowing for re-interment.

Poignant touches

Researchers at the university were able to determine that death rates among New York's captured Africans were higher than those of the Colonial white population, which lived to old age about eight times as often as the blacks, according to the African Burial Ground Project.

What little they took to the grave after their lives of severe labor shows they were mindful of home.

"One poignant cultural reference to home is a string of glass beads found with the remains of a young woman," according to the burial ground project. The blue, green and white glass beads, worn at the woman's waist and believed to represent water, were meant to assist her trip to the afterlife, "back over the water to Africa and her people."

One of the artifacts found at the burial site was an Ashanti symbol called the Sankofa -- a heart-shaped design made from 93 nails on one of the coffin lids. Widely used in Ghana, the symbol was a link between New York and Africa.

The coffins at yesterday's ceremony contained the remains of a woman in her early 20s who was killed by a musket ball, a man about 30 years old, and a boy and girl, both about 5, according to experts. The remains were carried to the front of the Masonic hall, where various speakers and singers from the African-American community marked the occasion.

It is unclear which century the four lived in, but the coffins are ceremonial and represent all of those to be reburied as well as those whose graves remained undisturbed since being buried in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Handmade by artisans in the West African country of Ghana -- the homeland of many of those buried in New York -- the decoratively carved coffins should enable people to understand the "richness and beauty" of African-American culture, and that "we built America," said Steele, an African-American.

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