African American History Month: Hallowed Grounds in the Heart of Manhattan

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At GSA, we are fortunate to be the caretakers of many important sites and structures throughout the United States. Twenty five years ago, we discovered one of the most important sites in African American history in our inventory in the heart of one of the nation’s biggest cities.

In 1991, GSA was preparing to construct a $275 million federal office building in lower Manhattan. As the agency began work on what would become the Ted Weiss Federal Building, it conducted an environmental impact statement, to ensure the construction wouldn’t adversely impact the surrounding environment. What the inspection found was a portion of the largest colonial burial ground for people of African descent in America.

From the late 1690s until 1794, this small, 6.6 acre plot on the southern tip of Manhattan was the final resting place for free and enslaved Africans in New York state.

The church where most of the city’s residents were buried during the 17th century passed a resolution banning the burial of anyone of African descent. This forced the city’s African population to find a new location to bury their dead. As a result of the institutional discrimination of the time, they were forced to go beyond the boundaries of the developed city.

Burials likely began here in the 1690s, but it wasn’t until 1712 that we found the first records of the property as a cemetery for enslaved and freed people of African descent. In 1794, as the City began to expand and needed more room for development, the burial ground was closed. For approximately a century, this spot served as a resting place for an estimated 15,000 African Americans. In the years since it was largely forgotten as New York City grew and expanded. Those who did remember its existence assumed any trace of those buried there had been wiped away by the development.

However, since 1991, more than 400 intact remains have been found at the site. The excavation of this site has given us a great deal of insight into the lives of individuals whose role in building one of the most important cities in the world is often overlooked, if not entirely forgotten.

Managed by GSA, the overall project is a testimony to the partnership between many parties, including the Department of the Interior’s National Park Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, Howard University, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the African American community.

Through the community’s activism and commitment, the African Burial Ground was awarded designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1993 and was named a National Monument in 2006.

The African Burial Ground National Monument is located at the corners of Duane and Elk Streets in lower Manhattan and is operated by the National Park Service. For directions to the site, the Visitor Center, and more information, go to www.nps.gov/afbg

For more information about this site and its history, visit GSA.gov.

Last Reviewed: 2018-03-12