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Beneath The Streets

by Antoinette Mullins


290 Broadway, a vicinity located within City Hall. Federal courts and offices reside in this area of downtown Manhattan. Judges and lawyers constantly roam the streets. It is not uncommon to find a swarm of reporters covering some of the biggest stories of the day. About ten years ago, 290 Broadway did not stick out in any way. Today, it is the center of one of the most important archaeological discovers of this century, an African Burial Ground.

The discovery of the forgotten African Burial Ground occurred during an archaeological study in June 1991. This discovery brought to light a piece of lost history and facts missing from numerous textbooks. This history begins with some of the first settlers in North America. The first Africans arrivals in 1626 were captives taken from West and Central Africa. By the time the British began to colonize New Amsterdam, Africans made up 40 percent of the population. When they first arrived they were given small areas of farmland outside the city walls. The area they were given is now one of the richest properties in the world, City Hall.

The piece of land was used as a cemetery. Since the land was near water it allowed African captives to keep their traditional burial practices alive (burying their dead by the water continued the common idea of combining cemeteries with water). The area was also away from their settlement, providing privacy. Burials were the only time when slaves were allowed to gather alone, after dark and in large groups outside acres.

Over the years the burial ground was in use, five to six acres were filled up with as many as 20,000 people. Some of those people were sentenced to death for plotting against the government. The idea of slaves rebelling worried slave owners. African Burials were looked at as a problem because of the privacy they gave slaves. In 1731, with the British worried about African uprisings, they passed laws making African burials occur during the day and with a restricted amount of people attending.

As the years passed the burial ground was forgotten. The land above it turned into one of the most valuable properties in the world and the center of law for New York City. The African Burial ground was disrupted in many ways since the usage of it stopped. For example, is how medical students took bodies from the burial ground and used them in dissections. In 1991 construction workers removed over 400 bodies, outraging many people about the ways things were being handle concerning the scared site. Since then programs have brought awareness to and protection of the burial ground.

The African Burial Ground provides evidence that there was a large presence of African Americans in colonial New York. Since the burial ground discovery there have been several art and research projects surrounding it. 290 Broadway office building have acted as the center of these projects for years. These projects have focus around making people aware of the history African Americans were a part of, beginning from the 1600s. They are a way of attracting people to a burial ground that were lost for so long.

For more information on this topic go to:

Inside City Hall



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