W&M Scientist’s Work Leads to First Nat’l Park Center Dedicated to Early African Americans

February 27th, 2010 by Kim Lenz



William and Mary’s Michael Blakey (Photo courtesy of Michael Blakey)

Years of work by a William & Mary faculty member and his students will be on display this weekend when the National Park Service opens the New York African Burial Ground’s interactive visitor center in lower Manhattan.

Michael Blakey, National Endowment for the Humanities Professor at the College of William and Mary, served as the lead scientist at the burial ground, which is the first national monument dedicated to Africans of early New York and Americans of African descent. Weather permitting, the site’s visitor center will open to the public at 1:30 p.m. today, Saturday, Feb. 27, showcasing much of the research that was done as a result of the work that Blakey and his students have completed.

During his decade of work at the burial ground, Blakey coordinated research of the site and its remains among teams of archeologists, biological anthropologists, historians and others. The archaeological and historical contexts of the remains were analyzed by Howard University research teams and the Institute for Historical Biology (IHB) at William & Mary, which Blakey directs.

According to the National Park Service Web site, from about the 1690s until 1794, both free and enslaved Africans were buried in a 6.6-acre burial ground in lower Manhattan. That burial ground was lost to history due to landfill and development, and rediscovered in 1991 during planning for construction of a federal office building on the site.

Over the last few years, a comparative database on the bioarchaeology of the African Diaspora was developed at the IHB. That database, which has been used by about a dozen William & Mary undergraduates for research projects, provided much of the information that was used to design the permanent exhibit in the new visitor center.

Blakey and a group of about four William & Mary graduate students assisted the firm that was hired to design the visitor center. The firm met with Blakey and other specialists to come up with drafts of what the exhibition would look like. Those drafts were then brought to the students who examined everything from the language to the data, using the IHB’s database.

According to a press release from the National Park Service, the new visitor center will seek to “tell the story of free and enslaved Africans in early New York and the role of the African descendant community in preserving the burial ground following its 1991 rediscovery.” The new center includes four exhibit areas, a 40-person theatre and a store.

For more on the IHB, click here. To learn more about the New York African Burial Ground, click here.

3 Responses to W&M Scientist’s Work Leads to First Nat’l Park Center Dedicated to Early African Americans

  1. Anonymous

    February 27, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    am i missing something? Where is this park? NY is a big state?

  2. Anonymous

    February 27, 2010 at 3:11 pm

    Good question – meant to include that in the first bit. The New York African Burial Ground is located at 290 Broadway in lower Manhattan. According to the NPS: “From about the 1690s until 1794, both free and enslaved Africans were buried in a 6.6-acre burial ground in Lower Manhattan, outside the boundaries of the settlement of New Amsterdam, later known as New York. Lost to history due to landfill and development, the grounds were rediscovered in 1991 as a consequence of the planned construction of a Federal office building.” Interesting stuff, isn’t it? Thanks for the inquiry.

  3. Anonymous

    February 28, 2010 at 3:36 pm

    Very good to hear that. However, here in Yorktown the NPS has been working several years now to uncover and assemble detailed information on the very big African-American footprint here since Yorktown was the premier slave import port during the 17-hundreds, shipping them as far as New York .

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