Dr. Michael L. Blakey, project and scientific director for the African Burial Ground, is doing the breakthrough work at Howard University, an historic Black college in Washington.
Dr. Blakey has opened up the possibility of slave descendants tracing their ancestry to specific areas in Nigeria, Niger, Senegal and Benin. Up until now specific genetic tracing had been difficult and left mostly to guess work.
“I know that it may seem slow and tedious,” said Dr. Blakey, commenting on why it has taken from 1993 to now to make public the work done at Howard University in respect to the anthropological research. “As the biggest, most sophisticated, and most noted bio-archaeological project in the United States, one can expect unusual time, effort, and technological problems. We planned for this and are within a reasonable range of our projected time frame for completing the project.”
It is now being projected by the office of Memoralization, under the direction of Ms. Peggy King Jorde, that reinternment of the 427 skeletal remains of Colonial-era Black Americans buried in lower Manhattan’s 283 year old “African Burial Ground” will take place in December 2000 or in the spring of 2001.
The African Burial Ground, an 18th century cemetery, was rediscovered by archaeologists in 1991 during the pre-construction surveys for a new federal office building. During the 1700s, when the burial ground was mainly in use, Africans made up from 14.4 percent to 20.9 percent of New York City’s population.
Consistent with the marginal status of Africans in colonial society, the burial ground was described as a desolate piece of unappropriated land and was located outside of the city limits. According to city maps, by the late 1700s the oldest portions of the cemetery were already being covered over by development. As the city expanded, the existence of the African Burial Ground was eventually forgotten.
On the question of origins, the historians have determined that one-third of New York’s 18th century African population was born in Africa and that most of the remaining two-thirds spent some time in the Caribbean prior to sale in New York.
“Shipping data provides information on the ports from which enslaved Africans embarked for New York,” said Dr. Blakey, of the Dept. of Sociology and Anthropology at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Historians connected with the African Burial Ground Project have begun to track the locations of wars in the African interior that would have produced captives who would have been brought to those shipping points from which the slaves were dispatched. If, for instance, ships left Elmina Castle in Ghana with cargo of 400 slaves, these slaves would have come from a variety of ethnic groups, most having been captured in war.
“In this way we have learned that a broad range of West and Central Africans, among others, are possibly among the dead,” said Dr. Blakey.
DNA testing has been done on 40 of the skeletal remains and that is through the mitochondria DNA that is inherited maternally, according to Dr. Blakey.
“Our goal was to pinpoint the actual geographic place of origin,” said Dr. Rick Kittles, a geneticist and biological anthropologist at the Department of Microbiology at Howard University. “The present regions of West and Central Africa have historically been shown to be the origin of many of the Africans who were enslaved here and other countries.”
Of the 427 skeletal remains studied at Howard University there were 26 crania intact , which could be studied. Although Dr. Blakey cautions that the results are far from conclusive, he can safely say that there is a close match with the Ashanti.
“We do not have an Ashanti data base,” the professor said. “We need to study at least 300 of the remains to be totally sure.”
When all of the DNA work is completed there will be data bases established at Howard University; at the University of Maryland, which will be under the care of geneticist Dr. Fatimah Jackson; and at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture where Blacks of the Diaspora can have three samples of DNA taken at a cost of $350 each to trace one’s ancestry.
The success of the DNA research is the good news. The bad news, according to Dr. Blakey, is that funding runs out at the end of the month of December. “We have been funded through a system of extensions which come every two weeks,” Dr. Blakey said. The federal General Service Administration oversees the African Burial Ground Project and according to Dr. Blakey, “GSA tells us they have submitted our proposal for $750,000 to complete the DNA study to the White House Office of Budget and Management. To date $5.4 million has been spent on the Howard research by the GSA. Howard University has also contributed money to the research.
Ms. Ayo Harrington, president of Friends of the African Burial Ground, a group credited with getting movement from GSA on bringing the issue of the African Burial Ground to closure, said it is important for the DNA research to continue.
“Complete research would provide a genetic pool through which African Americans could attempt an ancestral match. In light of the premeditated practice and laws established during slavery, through which this country successfully destroyed most connections to our ancestry, there is no question about the importance of this one time opportunity for African Americans and what the endeavor would signify worldwide.”