On the second floor of Howard University’s Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall lie some of the university’s most prized possessions. For over five years, anthropology students and professors at Howard’s Cobb Biological Anthropology Laboratory have been working on the African Burial Ground Project, researching the centuries-old remains of more than 400 slaves and free blacks. The effort will eventually allow the researchers to trace the lives of their subjects from Africa to their unceremonious end in an 18th-century Manhattan graveyard. The project, researchers say, is unlike any other in this country or, possibly, the world.
Howard’s custody of remains has its origins in a racially fractious debate that arose in the early ’90s when the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) attempted to erect an office tower on the site of a New York City 18th-century burial ground for slaves and free blacks. After a groundswell of community protests, the agency struck a compromise with the communitythe GSA could continue its construction as long as the agency footed the bill to have the bones studied and reinterred. Howard was selected as the study site in 1993.
Since that time, the project has managed to organize the various bone fragments into more than 400 skeletons and determined the sex and age of several. But researchers say they’ve got a lot more to do. DNA and chemical tests are needed to determine the ethnic origin and birthplace of the subjects. That’s where the trouble lies. Last year, the GSA informed the Cobb Laboratory that after April 1999, the research on the remains will no longer get any funding from the federal agency that disturbed the graves in the first place.
Project leaders say that the agency has yet to fork over the entire $10 million it promised for the research. But the GSA claims that the total cost of recovering and studying the remains has already exceeded the projected budget. Either way, it’s clear that the centuries-old bones of 400 difficult lives still have a way to go before they can rest.
The 1991 discovery of the African burial ground began like any other construction project. The GSA wanted to erect a 34-story, $276 million office tower and an adjoining four-story pavilion. Federal law requires that before any digging can take place, a historical and archaeological survey of the site must be undertaken. The agency contracted Historic Conservation and Interpretation, a New Jersey-based firm that specializes in exactly the kind of research the GSA needed. When the initial survey was complete, the firm informed the GSA that there was a slight problem.
Old maps showed that the site that the GSA was trying to build on was once the site of an 18th-century graveyard then known as the “Negroes Burying Ground.” The conservation firm initially estimated that the remains of about 50 slaves and free blacks remained at the site. The agency’s solution was simple: Remove the bodies and erect the building as quickly as possible.
Builders quietly began excavating the bones. They transported them in cardboard boxes to Lehman College of the City University of New York, where they were stored in the basement of the gymnasium. If initial projections about how many bodies were buried had held up, the process might have ended right there. But when there proved to be nearly 10 times as many human remains at the site, news of the grisly work spread.
Activists in New York’s black community caught wind of the GSA’s excavation efforts and mobilized against what they saw as wanton disrespect for the dead. Community leaders summoned Howard University biological anthropologist Michael Blakey to the site. After conducting his own research, Blakey estimated that at least 400 skeletal remains were buried, making the site the largest such burial ground ever discovered in North America. By then, community activists had caught the ear of then-Mayor David Dinkins and state Sen. David Patterson. Dinkins and Patterson leaned heavily on the GSA to cease excavation, in the face of mass community protest. The GSA refused.
In 1992, the debate reached the ears of then-Congressman Gus Savage (D-Ill.), who headed the House Subcommittee on Public Buildings and Grounds, which appropriates money for the GSA to construct new buildings. Savage told the GSA’s top brass that not another penny of federal funds would go to the project unless the GSA stopped construction immediately. They reluctantly acquiesced. Yet the issue of what to do with the site remained open and bitterly contentious.
To help broker a compromise, Patterson used his political pull to form a federal steering committee to oversee the conflict. Blakey proposed a $10 million research project that would give as complete a picture as possible of the lives of the slaves who were buried at the site. Researchers would be able to answer such questions as what part of Africa the slaves came from, what types of work they performed, and what they ate.
In 1993, the GSA agreed to pay for the multi-million-dollar project. At the time, there was much fanfare made by both parties over the compromise. An emotional ceremony was put together to honor the movement of the remains to Howard. A delegation of Ghanaian chiefs visited the site and offered a symbolic apology for African participation in the slave trade. Howard’s alumni magazine ran a cover story on the project. “We were too late to stop the construction,” says Miriam Francis, who served on the steering committee. “But we could learn something about the ancestors.”
Six years later, things haven’t gotten any easier. The bones made it to Howard, but Blakey says that that’s about where the GSA’s good citizenship ended. Although the agency initially agreed to fund the research, it also stipulated that the money not be distributed in a lump sum. Instead, funds would be distributed at various intervals of the research. When each portion of the research was finished, the agency would negotiate how much money was needed for the next phase.
Blakey says the GSA spent months haggling with Howard’s administrationnoting that negotiations at each phase took an average of eight months. Gaps in funding have either meant gaps in research or staff members having to temporarily work for free. “We have tried to work with GSA,” says Blakey. “[But] throughout our years of working with them, they have repeatedly earned our distrust.”
“We had to fight with them from the very beginning,” says Mary Madison, who served on the steering committee. “Nothing has ever run smoothly with GSA.”
In January 1998, Blakey submitted a proposal to the GSA for the next phase of research. In May 1998, GSA replied by telling Blakey that he would not receive funding after April 1999. Blakey says the GSA argued that the average cost for graveyard disinterment and research had been exceeded by the project. Blakey countered that the African burial ground was not an average cemetery and could not be evaluated under a one-size-fits-all formula.
Howard didn’t come up entirely empty-handed. Blakey says he requested computers with Pentium II processors. The GSA replied by scheduling a photo session in the office of Howard’s president, where the computers would be awarded. But Blakey claims he was given computers with 386 processors, which were incapable of running the software his staff needed. GSA public affairs officer Renee Miscone will not elaborate on the computers Blakey says he requested. Miscone says that the 386s donated to Howard were “part of a school donation program.”
The GSA responded to media inquiries with a letter addressed to the Friends of the African Burial Ground, a group of community leaders who have rallied around the project. The letter refers to a memorandum of agreement between GSA and New York’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation that allows the GSA to spend only 1 percentabout $3 millionof its building budget on “data recovery and mitigation.” The agency calculates its total expenditures to date at $12 million.
Blakey argues that that memo was signed in 1991, before the size of the burial ground was even apparent. Furthermore, he asserts that of that $12 million, the Cobb Laboratory received only $5.2 million. He says that recent objections have gone unheeded largely because the steering committee was disbanded in 1994, leaving no oversight to guarantee that the GSA was fulfilling its promise. The GSA has attracted enough attention, however, that when the World Archaeology Conference was convened in Cape Town, South Africa, a resolution was adopted condemning the GSA for having “reversed its previous position to fund the full scope of research.”
Blakey says that no matter what happens now, the research will continue. “We’ll complete what we can with what we have,” says Blakey. “We’re not going to let the public or the ancestors down, but the people who put a building on top of that cemetery will not have complied.”CP