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African Burial Ground National Monument, New York

(Photo by Barbara Little) Stone marker commemorating African people at the African Burial Ground National Monument

Amid the hectic bustle and concrete canyons of lower Manhattan, are the final resting places of 10,000 to 20,000 African-Americans, buried in the country’s oldest known urban African cemetery. Under the authority of the Antiquities Act of 1906, President George W. Bush proclaimed a 15,000 square foot portion of this site a National Monument on February 27, 2006. The African Burial Ground National Monument honors the culture and memory of the Africans and African-Americans who contributed to the building of our nation.

Free and enslaved colonial Africans and African-Americans buried their dead here, on the edge of the growing city, as early as 1712 after many of New York’s churches denied their interment. Burials continued until about 1795, when the demands of a developing city and growing population encroached upon the cemetery. By 1812, many of the graves were covered with up to 25 feet of fill dirt. Markings on a few historic maps became the only clue of its existence.

Aware of the possible existence of a burial ground, the General Services Administration (GSA) hired archeologists to investigate in 1991 before constructing a federal office building on the site. Contrary to the assumption that any remainders of the past were lost to development and time, the site was found to hold unparalleled national historical significance. The entire area believed to contain burials was designated as a National Historic Landmark on April 19, 1993. Archeologists recovered the remains of 419 individuals, many originally wrapped in shrouds and buried in wooden coffins facing east. Coins, shells, glass, buttons, beads, clay pipes, pieces of coral, and quartz crystal were found inside some of the coffins. Read the reports of the archeological investigation of the burials and physical anthropological studies of the interred individuals.

The excavated remains were re-interred at a publicly accessible section of the cemetery near protected, unexcavated graves. The lives of all the men, women and children lying in rest at African Burial Ground National Monument are commemorated. Thousands of people have participated in traditional African ceremonies or American-style memorials at the site. Today, the archeology is complete, and work is underway by the National Park Service to interpret the site so that the people and their contributions to the nation will not be forgotten again.

Department of Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton recognized the significance of the new National Monument saying, “After facing this painful past, we come together to preserve this sacred ground. This burial ground teaches slavery’s shame. It also teaches that repentance and remembrance lead to renewal.”

Upon hearing about the President’s proclamation, visitors to the site responded to the question, “In your opinion, what is the national significance of this place?” with the following comments:

  • “I'd heard how controversial the African Burial had become. I'm so glad the NPS can preserve the site and use its archeology—which is amazing!—to express how difficult the building of America has been for so many Americans.”
  • “It is astonishing that so much remains of our heritage that is just waiting for such discovery.”


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