Honoring an African Past in Colonial America

Posted September 30, 2003

The Rites of Ancestral Return, a multi-city tribute, ended with a reinterment ceremony at the African Burial Ground site in New York City.

Special tribute and memorial ceremonies in six cities culminated with the reinterment of 419 coffins containing the remains of men, women, and children at the African Burial Ground site in New York on October 4, 2003.

“In accordance with the rich traditions of African culture, the ceremonies for the Rites of Ancestral Return [were] conducted, concluding with the solemn reinterment at the African Burial Ground,” said GSA Administrator Stephen A. Perry.

The remains were discovered in 1991, when, during excavation for the Foley Square federal office building at 290 Broadway in lower Manhattan, workers unearthed the largest Colonial-era cemetery for enslaved and free Africans in America. It was the final resting place for more than 20,000 Africans who could trace their residency in the area to the mid-1600s.

During the previous 200 years, other parts of the five-acre burial ground were disregarded while buildings, streets, and parking lots were constructed over the site.

Archeologists carefully exhumed human remains and artifacts from the construction site for scientific and historical research. Noted archeologists, anthropologists, and historians have studied the remains at Howard University in Washington, DC.

Their work has revealed much about the life, culture, and heritage of a people whose labor contributed significantly to the building and development of New York, Washington, and other U.S. cities.

GSA led the effort to facilitate the timely and dignified return of the human remains to their final resting place at the African Burial Ground. Others who were closely involved include the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the National Park Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the local community, African-American historians, and other interested individuals and institutions. The Schomburg Center is coordinated the Rites of Ancestral Return multi-city tribute.

There are four other components of the African Burial Ground Project:

  • An African Burial Ground Office of Public Education and Interpretation was established to offer the public information about this rich archeological find.
  • GSA, in partnership with the National Park Service, will build an interpretive center at the site, which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1993.
  • This summer, proposed designs for an exterior memorial were displayed for public view and comment.
  • Howard University in Washington, DC, will report on its scientific analysis of bones from the upper layers of the site.

The image featured on this page is an untitled glass mosaic by Roger Brown. It was installed in the Foley Square Federal Building in 1994. It is 14 feet high and 10 feet wide.

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