by Imani Vieira
part of a series honoring Black Histories in the LES
During an excavation for the General Services Administration federal government office building at 290 Broadway in the financial district of Manhattan in 1991, hundreds of human remains were unearthed. What was discovered was the first African burial ground
for enslaved and free people of New York City, the oldest to exist in the country. It took nearly two centuries for the first African Burial Ground to be uncovered and recognized as a Historic Landmark, but through grassroots efforts and petitions to recognize the site, the First African Burial Ground became a National Monument in 2006.
A few miles away in the Lower East Side lies the very same story; the final resting place of enslaved and freed Black New Yorkers, built over and lacking the necessary acknowledgment that all those who are buried there deserve.
In 1794, a year after the closing of the first African Burial Ground, The African Society asked the City of New York for a piece of property on the west side of Chrystie between Stanton and Rivington. According to the African Society, the land was to be used as “Grounds as a Burial place to Bury Black persons of every denomination and description whatever in this City whether Bond or Free.” With the help of various individuals, the African Society was eventually able to purchase the land. What once was 195-197 Chrystie Street (—now parts of the New Museum and Sara D. Roosevelt Park)—became the site of the Second African Burial Ground, one of the only burial grounds for free and enslaved Black New Yorkers between 1795 and 1843 in the city. The entrance to the burial ground was on Freeman’s Alley, which still exists today, and which may have been named to honor the site.
The land was then sold over to St. Philip’s Church, the first African American Episcocal parish in New York City. St. Philip’s was able to maintain the land as a burial ground until about 1835, when they reported they were full to capacity and in danger of being fined. Due to the growing population of New York City, parts of the cemetery were then developed and the burial ground began to deteriorate. In 1852, the burial ground was closed for good. St. Philip’s purchased a parcel of land in Cypress Hills, bodies were reinterred, and the original site was eventually completely built over.
Cemetery reinterments were common during the 19th century, but not very thorough. Often, headstones would be moved but the majority of the physical bodies in a cemetery or burial ground would be left behind. It is unclear how many bodies were actually reinterred as original records of the cemetery show 5,000 people, while records at Cypress Hills show 458 reinterments. In 2006, during the construction of the New Museum, human remains were found and excavated. One can only assume that many more bodies were left behind and continue to be under the streets and sidewalks of Chrystie Street.
The only acknowledgment of the Second African Burial Ground lives within the name of the M’Finda Kalunga Garden, named in memory of the burial ground; meaning “Garden at the Edge of the Other Side of the World” and a small physical marker outside the garden. Located within Sara D. Roosevelt Park, M’Finda Kalunga was founded in 1983 as a way to counteract the park’s increased drug activities and crime. The garden continues to serve as a community space and holds a Juneteenth celebration each year inviting community members in the garden to celebrate the longest known celebration of the ending of slavery.
A small plaque outside the M’Finda Kalunga Garden is the only physical marker honoring the site that was once the Second African Burial Ground. It is only right and just that we pay homage and respect to the Black New Yorkers who built and created such a large legacy in this city. Just as it was after the first discovery of remains at 290 Broadway, it will be up to individuals and grass root efforts to get the city to recognize the contributions of the many Black New Yorkers who built this city, both physically and through their legacies.
Hyperallergic- When Will There Be a Memorial?
NY Cemetery Project – African Burial Ground
Tenement Museum, African Burial Ground National Monument
New Museum, Land Acknowledgement