Rites of Return – an African cemetery in New York City (USA)

By Ian Cochrane, May 11, 2013

`For all those who were not forgotten' - Lower Manhattan

`For all those who were not forgotten’ – Lower Manhattan

Just off Broadway I’m in a side street by City Hall, the ubiquitous New York crowds somehow missing, the hum of traffic vague and distant. A lonesome monument sits silent and tucked in the shadow of City Planning offices and a 30-storey Federal skyscraper; that building’s construction leading to the 1991 discovery of the largest North American cemetery of Africans and those of African descent. This is a small corner of a much larger 17th and 18th Century ‘Negros Buriel Ground’, originally 2.6Ha and the resting place of 15000 men, women and children.

With New York’s voracious growth, the burial ground was long-forgotten. On this small corner alone, old buildings had been demolished, the ground re-filled and covered with the new; the remains of 419 souls found 8m below where I stand. With the discovery, all building work here stopped, with a traditional African ceremony to rebury all remains in 2003. Then began the six day `Rites of Ancestral Return’; the journey beginning at Howard University in Washington DC – where the appropriate research took place – the procession moving through several major cities and finishing back here in New York; work on this, the African Burial Ground National Monument completed in 2007.

From the street I step past green grass and seven earthen mounds, the reinterred remains; each re-buried in hand-carved mahogany coffins from Ghana, and each lined with African cloth. I stand for a moment by a giant tilted panel in dark grey granite, with the reflection of City Hall, the carved shape of a cemetery guardian, and the words – 

`For all those who were lost

 For all those who were stolen

 For all those who were left behind

 For all those who were not forgotten’

There’s another tilted panel behind, forming a roof; shelter at the entry to the libation chamber beneath. A narrow ramp gradually descends to the centre of an open circular chamber, at the depth the remains were rediscovered – the sound of trickling water follows my footsteps – at the bottom the inner circle an earthly map, darker stone on a pale granite disc; the jigsaw of worldly continents. Scribed circles radiate out from a West African epicentre. I stand in the centre reading sentences that straddle an etched circumference, strings of words strangely cold and detached; unknown men, women and children; one recording :


A Cemetery Guardian - Lower Manhattan

A Cemetery Guardian – Lower Manhattan

The women laboured in their masters’ homes, the men on heavier work and civil building projects, children indentured from an early age. Lives were short. There was violence. Some died of overwork and malnutrition, others from smallpox or yellow fever. But with colonial laws banning gatherings of over twelve people, funerals were in effect illegal. No ceremonial accounts exist.

But there’s dignity in the written reports on the remains found; a small child with a silver pendent around the neck; a string of beads about a woman’s waist; bodies in horizontal coffins with the faces up and looking east, in preparation for the next life; burial shrouds and coins gently placed on closed eyes.

I read of one man’s coffin, with the now familiar heart motif, this time formed with brass tacks and nails on the lid; the West African symbol urging all to learn from the lessons of the past in preparation for the future. There is strength in community, perseverance, sacrifice and respect.

The first settlers arrived in the Dutch colony in 1624 – the Indian island of Mannahatta – the first Africans arriving two years later in chains, from far-flung exotic shores now known as Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, Mozambique and Madagascar.

Silent witness - Lower Manhattan

Silent witness – Lower Manhattan

By 1643, free settlers had arrived from all over the world, already a melting pot of different languages, customs and religions. A French priest claimed to have heard 18-languages on a single occasion, in a settlement of only 500. `New Amsterdam’ was granted the status of a Dutch city in 1653, with the British arriving in 1664 and promptly changing the name to `New York’.

In 1697 a law forbade any African funerals in the city public cemetery – no matter how small – with all Africans buried north of the city boundary. By the 1720s around a quarter of New York’s labour force were slaves. In 1745 the city expanded northwards; with the new city wall bisecting the existing burial ground. Final closure came in 1794, the land subsequently subdivided and sold off for development.

I hear footsteps at the top of the ramp, a stray passer-by; the outer circle a rising path up to the street pavement, with shining steel balustrade one side, low vertical wall on the outside. I run my hand along the face of the perimeter wall as I walk – shining marble – smooth, cold and black; bold African motifs mixed with eerie Manhattan reflections of modern city streetscapes.


  1. Phil says:

    There is so much of our history, good and bad, that is buried beneath our feet. I have known about this area and living in NYC have been there. I also saw a feature about it on a local channel here. Sometimes I feel we are in too much of a rush to move ahead into the future and plow under our past. I pray these souls are now resting in peace.

    • IanC says:

      New York is such a special place Phil, & I consider myself so lucky to visit this special place.

      Although we may not be able to fix the mistakes of the past, we can @ least admit to the wrongs. I did feel the dignity of the place.
      Thanks & cheers, ic

  2. Shana Manuel says:

    I actually visited this site and for the many years that I’ve lived in New York, just recently learned of its existence.

    • IanC says:

      Hullo Shana.
      I guess there must have been publicity when building this wonderful memorial – & there was the march – but it does seem there are many that have not visited.

      I’m so glad you got there, & thanks so much for your comment.
      Cheers, ic

  3. The amount of death, starvation, slavery, harsh violence and doom that lurks beneath our feet on an everyday basis is sickening when you think of what man has done to his fellow man.

    And it’s always a great shame that nobody has made more of an effort to preserve such a place previously, so we can all learn of the history that took place on our various lands. I guess it’s also a way of hiding our shame.

    You covered this post well as hardly anyone in your comments had heard of it, and thanks for the information too.

    • IanC says:

      Thanks for dropping by Rum.
      I guess `civilization’ has always been a somewhat fluid thing, & hopefully we learn as we go.

      Maybe these places, if left undiscovered – as you say – do hide our shame.
      Cheers, ic

  4. JerseyLil says:

    An excellent post, Ian! As many times as I have been to New York, I was not aware of this monument. Slavery is a tragic and very shameful part of American history. How sad that this important historic burial ground was long forgotten until construction led to discovery of the remains and building of the monument.

    The Cemetery Guardian is beautiful, and the inscription is very moving. Those reports on the remains…the small child with a pendant, the woman with the beads, bodies in coffins with faces looking east in preparation for the next life, the man’s coffin with the heart motif…so haunting and heartbreaking. Your last line evokes a powerful image when you run your hand along the perimeter wall…“shining marble – smooth and black; bold African motifs mixed with eerie Manhattan reflections of modern city streetscapes.”

    Ian, thank you for posting about this and including the historical references. I hope to visit the monument one day and pay my respects.

    • IanC says:

      Much appreciated JL.
      Most likely a sad indictment on World history as well as that of the US. It’s interesting how special places can be forgotten; I guess that’s progress(?)

      It is quite a poignant reminder & I’m sure you’ll get there.
      Cheers, ic

  5. Fascinating, Ian. I can’t count the number of times I walked down that street and never suspected what was under my feet. Reminds me of this Dylan Thomas line: “Bury the dead for fear that they walk to the grave in labor.”

    • IanC says:

      I do like that quote NP.
      Have always been interested in archaeology, & what memories are buried in the layers beneath us.
      Cheers, ic

  6. dalecooper57 says:

    A dignified telling of a very undignified episode in history Ian. Thanks for a fascinating insight.

  7. Annie says:

    Wow Ian, I am so glad you wrote this. I am yet another who has never heard of it. I lived in Manhattan too, but never knew about the burial grounds.

    • IanC says:

      Thanks Annie.
      To be honest, if this was in another big city & tucked in the corner of the business district, I suspect it would also remain unseen by many. In some ways that may add to the dignity of the place(?)

      It really does need to be searched out.
      Cheers, ic

  8. Charlene says:

    Like Kris and Kevin, I’ve never heard of this, either. I have several friends who live in Manhattan, and I’m pretty sure they haven’t heard of it, either. They know me well, and this would have been something on the top of my list to see. It is next time.

    This is why we need more integration of HONEST history into the US curriculum. Our history is of immigration, but it reads pure white.

    • IanC says:

      At the time I didn’t notice, but looking @ that first photo, you really can see the reflection of City Hall. The cemetery is right in the middle of the business district.

      I suppose it doesn’t surprise me that many may not have seen it.
      Thanks for dropping by Charlene, & I hope you guys get to see this special place.
      Cheers, ic

  9. I’ve never heard of this burial ground before; what a fascinating peek into American history and the strangeness of humanity.

  10. Kevin D'Arcy says:

    Very interesting. I never heard of this place. I will have to make my way there the next time I head East. Thanks for sharing this story.

  11. umashankar says:

    What a tribute to all those who were ‘lost’,’stolen’,’left behind’ and ‘not forgotten’, quaint African motifs, their future dreams and past nightmares! It reminded me so deeply of Tony Morrison’s Beloved.

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