African Burial Ground

We tend to think of the south when we discuss slavery in America. In 1703, New York City had the second highest percentage of slaves in the colonies. After Charleston, South Carolina. More than 42% of households in the city had slaves.

Ongoing slavery began in New York City in 1626, when eleven Africans were unloaded from a Dutch ship. In 1644, these eleven petitioned the director general of the colony for their freedom. The colony was skirmishing with Native Americans and the fear was that the slaves might run away and fight with them. So they were granted partial freedom. They could purchase land and earn a wage from a master, and eventually earn full freedom. However, their children would be born into slavery. By 1644, those eleven, and others attained half- freedom.

They lived north of Wall Street. Which was named thus because there was a wall there. The defensive barrier for New Amsterdam. They were settled outside it to be a further barrier against Native American attacks.

They settled near Fresh Water Pond, also known as Collect Pond. You can see precursors to present day streets in lower Manhattan.

Later, this area became infamous as Five Points. Anthony Street veers off to the left. Orange to the right. Cross Street is across the foreground.

More slaves were being brought into New Amsterdam as the need for labor increased. These came from both Africa, primarily Angola, and the Dutch West Indies. In 1642, a French privateer, the La Grace, off-loaded ‘Spanish Negroes’ that had been captured from a Spanish ship. The men claimed to be freemen, but because they were black, they were sold as slaves.

In 1644, the English gained control of New Amsterdam. They continued to import slaves to New York City. In 1708, the New York Assembly passed the Act For Preventing The Conspiracy of Slaves. This prescribed capital punishment for any slave who attempted to, or did murder, their master. This was partly in response to the murder of William Hallet III and his family in Queens.

In 1711, a formal slave market was established on Wall Street, where it meets the East River. It was active for 51 years, until 1762.

In 1730, in fear of slave insurrection, the New York Assembly banned the gathering of more than three slaves unless under the direct supervision of their masters. Punishment for violating this was whipping, not to exceed forty lashes for each offense.

The Conspiracy of 1741: This was a supposed plot by poor whites and slaves to revolt. The city’s population at the time was 10,000. 2,000 of those were slaves. The War of Jenkins Ear, between England and Spain had begun in 1739 and last until 1748. This reduced the number of troops in New York City and the gentry felt threatened. Rumors of insurrection was rampant.

The Conspiracy of 1741: Much like the Salem Witch Trials, a wave of paranoia swept the city after several fires. A white indentured servant, Mary Burton, testified there was a cabal. Slaves and poor whites were arrested. They often implicated others to save themselves. 17 blacks and 4 whites were hanged. 13 blacks were burned at the stake. Many more were deported. Executions occurred at the then north end of the city near Chambers Street. With her reward, Mary Burton was able to buy her freedom from indenture.

During the Revolution, African-Americans fought on both sides, but predominantly for the British, because they were promised freedom for their service. Since the British occupied New York City for the duration of the war, blacks fled to it and their population grew to over 10,000 and it was a hub of free blacks. Two of them were escapees from George Washington’s plantation in Virginia.

The Treaty of Paris required all property, including slaves, be left in place and returned to their owners. The British commander in New York City refused to comply. He had over 3,000 black loyalists transported to Nova Scotia. A group of those then went from Canada to Africa to found Sierra Leone.

In 1781 the New York State legislature promised freedom to slaves who had fought for three years for the colonists. The African Free School was founded; the first formal education for blacks in North America. By 1790, one-third of blacks in New York were free. In 1799, the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery was passed. It didn’t free any current slave. However, any slave child born after 4 July 1799 was free (18 years in the future); except they had to serve an indenture (males to age 28 and females to age 25).

African-Americans fought in the War of 1812 and defended New York. In 1817, the state freed all slaves born before 4 July 1799 to become effective in 1827. On 5 July 1827, African-Americans in New York celebrated emancipation with a parade. They chose the 5th because the 4th was not meant for blacks, as Frederick Douglas would lately famously say.

Despite freedom, African-Americans were mostly disenfranchised from the vote until the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870.

In the early days of New York City, the main burial ground was the north graveyard of Trinity Church. However, after Trinity purchased the land at Broadway and Wall Street, they had a law enacted in 1697 that no Negro could be buried on their property. The “Negro Burial Ground” was established outside the city limits near their community at Collect Pond. (Note, this area, after the pond was filled in, became the infamous Five Points neighborhood) An image is on the next page. Note that it’s outside the city stockade.

This cemetery was closed in 1794. Eventually, the area was slated for development and the burial ground covered with landfill. Occasionally, bones would be found as new structures were built, but this was more a matter for curiosity seekers and souvenir collectors than any concern.

It wasn’t until 1991, when the federal Government Services Administration (GSA) began construction of a large federal office building at 290 Broadway, between Reade and Chamber Streets, that the situation changed. The environmental impact statement had predicted no remains would be found because of the long history of development in the area. They were wrong.

As the first remains were uncovered during construction, the African- American community raised concerns. Excavation recovered 419 remains. However, it became apparent that the scope of the burial ground was so extensive that it couldn’t be excavated.

After strong lobbying and protests by the African- American community, Congress passed a law to redesign the building, avoiding the area where the remains had been found, and to build a memorial.

After gathering over 100,000 signatures on a petition, the ground was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1993. An archeologist at the Smithsonian, Theresa Singleton said: “The media exposure has created a larger, national audience for this type of research. I’ve been called by dozens of scholars and laypeople, all of them interested in African-American archaeology, all of them curious about why they don’t know more about the field. Until recently, even some black scholars considered African-American archaeology a waste of time. That’s changed now.”

Of the remains recovered from the partial excavation, over half were children. This is a result of short life expectancy at the time. All were buried in separate coffins. It’s estimated at least 20,000 were buried in the old cemetery.

A memorial was built and completed in 2007. It was designated the 123rd National Monument.


The memorial features a map of the Atlantic area in reference to the Middle Passage via which slaves were transported from Africa to North America. It is built of stone from South Africa and from North America, to symbolize the two worlds coming together. The Door of Return, refers to The Door of No Return, a name given to slave ports set up on the coast of West Africa, from which slaves were transported, never to see their homeland again.

The Memorial is located at the corner of Duane and Elk Street in Manhattan. The visitor center is in the Ted Weiss Federal Building at 290 Broadway.

The history of New York City is an integral part of my new series, which starts in 1977. From the African Burial Ground, to Hell Gate, to Hart Island, to Ellis Island, to the Statue of Liberty, to Robert Moses, to the 10,000 miles of tunnels under the city.

New York City. 1970s. Jack Reacher meets the Equalizer by NY Times Bestselling Author, West Point graduate and former Green Beret One of the top five new series of the year.

A free slideshow on this topic and many others about interesting history, survival, writing and other topics is on my web site at