Inside a Howard University research laboratory, a deep blue steel cabinet holds a white tray cradling a newborn's skeletal remains -- partial right leg, left arm, tiny ear -- arranged on black velvet like precious gems. Time erased the name, and history is silent on another mystery: whether the child was born slave or free.
The others are nearby, down the corridor of Frederick Douglass Hall. Behind a locked door with an activated security alarm, the skeletal remains of nearly 400 men, women and children rest in rows of cabinets stacked nearly ceiling high. The dead wait in this climate-controlled room for the living to resolve one of the most contentious disputes in the study of African American history.
What began a decade ago as an ambitious archaeological project to study the remains -- discovered when a federal construction crew stumbled across New York City's hidden African Burial Ground -- has turned into a chaotic ordeal, fraught with delays, funding problems and accusations of racism.
Today, the fate of the project hangs on fragile agreements between researchers and the federal government, with much at stake: millions of dollars in public funds, Howard University's reputation and promising research on the early impact of slavery in America.
All agree that the African Burial Ground, the largest and oldest known Colonial-era cemetery used by enslaved and free blacks, could provide groundbreaking insights. That goal, however, remains distant.
The research is one phase of a preservation plan, for which the federal budget has grown from about $2.2 million to $24.3 million. But no key phase is complete. Howard's unfinished reports, still in the draft stages, have delayed other phases of the project, and Howard officials have worried that the university's reputation as a top research institution could suffer.
Construction of a memorial at the New York site has not begun, and twice the government had to cancel plans to reinter the remains, despite having paid $100,000 for mahogany crypts and coffins hand-carved in Ghana.
The project was even affected by terrorism. When the World Trade Center towers collapsed Sept. 11, some artifacts that were being analyzed in a New York laboratory were buried in the rubble.
Before that, the project's many delays had angered a group of black New Yorkers who consider the cemetery the sacred resting place of their African ancestors and a national symbol for black Americans whose ancestral roots were obliterated during slavery. Every stage has provoked an emotional struggle for control. And the disputes have been titanic.
"We are very upset," said Ollie McClean, leader of an advocacy group known as Descendants of the African Burial Ground. "This government brought my people here in bondage and worked them to death, then dug them up, and to this day, we are fighting to get the bones back so we can rebury them."
Two centuries ago, mapmakers noted a Negro burial ground in lower Manhattan, near the site of today's City Hall. Yet federal officials were surprised in 1991 when, at that precise spot, construction workers excavating for a proposed federal building began unearthing intact burials -- skeletal remains, grave goods and remnants of coffins. The site was part of a five-acre 18th-century cemetery that historians believe held the remains of as many as 20,000 people.
The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, an independent federal agency, immediately advised the General Services Administration to develop a plan to preserve the site's historic value. But GSA officials, worried about costly delays, initially declined to modify the construction schedule. Instead, the GSA accelerated the excavation and in a year's time had unearthed more than 400 skeletal remains.
In the meantime, New York's black community accused the government of desecrating sacred ground and mishandling the remains, some of which were wrapped in newspaper. A scientist gingerly handling one burial would later discover that the words "New York Post" had transferred onto a skull.
The proper preservation approach, some argued, would be to scrap plans for the office building. Advocates held vigils, protests and news conferences. Former New York mayor David N. Dinkins asked Congress to intervene.
In 1992, then-Rep. Gus Savage (D-Ill.), chairman of a subcommittee on public buildings and grounds, called for construction to cease until the GSA mitigated damage to the site. In response, the agency halted construction and agreed to a multi-phase plan that would fund research, develop a memorial and interpretive center at the site and reinter the remains.
Advocates saw parallels between their demands and the long, ongoing struggle of Native Americans. Their campaign against the desecration of Native American burial grounds led to the passage of a 1990 federal law that gives them control of grave sites on federal land and requires the return of cultural items and human remains.
In New York, activists insisted that black experts were needed to place the burial ground in the proper historical and cultural context. As a result, Howard received a contract to oversee the research project.
About that time, it became apparent to federal officials that the new demands of advocates would push up expenses. The initial federal proposal of $2.3 million would not begin to cover the expanding project.
In 1993, the burial ground was declared a National Historic Landmark, and Howard's project created such a stir among archaeologists and researchers that it was featured in documentaries and books.
The Equivalent of 'Roots' To the scientists at Howard, the cemetery and the secrets it held were the anthropological equivalent of Alex Haley's "Roots," the hugely popular book and television series that traced Haley's ancestry back to slavery.
Relying on an ambitious research design, the Howard scientists set out to uncover enough evidence to reconstruct the burial ground population's entire existence, from countries of origin to causes of death.
Michael L. Blakey, the Howard anthropologist who assembled and guided a team of mostly black scientists from nine universities, also saw an opportunity to tackle America's race problem.
"We seek to reverse the false histories that deny the African material contributions to the building of the Western world," Blakey wrote in a report to a United Nations human rights conference in Switzerland.
The scientists' early findings fueled expectations, providing a person-by-person picture of black life in America 200 years ago.
Mark E. Mack, an interim curator at Howard's Cobb Laboratory, described how a man labeled "burial 101" exemplified the project's promise: He stood nearly six feet tall and had been physically active as a teenager, judging from early injuries to his shoulders. He had suffered from yaws, a chronic infectious disease common in the tropics. He died between age 30 and 35, and mourners embellished his wood coffin with brass tacks arranged in a heart shape, believed to be a West African symbol called Sankofa. DNA tests linked the man to a maternal ancestor in West Africa.
In burial after burial, the researchers analyzed skeletons, linen shroud pins and coffin fragments to draw conclusions about social conditions and the harshness of slavery.
They found that children under 12, who made up 40 percent of the individual burials, experienced a high mortality rate and developmental delays caused by malnutrition and disease. Pre-revolutionary New York, which had more enslaved Africans than any Colonial settlement except Charleston, S.C., preferred child slaves because they were inexpensive and unlikely to rebel, the Howard historians noted.
The majority of the men and women exhibited signs of muscle tears and spine fractures commonly associated with excessive strain and heavy loads; the scientists said that in some instances they appeared simply to have been worked to death.
In a sample study, scientists used DNA to trace the ancestry of 32 of those buried to specific cultures in Ghana, Nigeria, Niger, Senegal and Benin. They lobbied for funds to expand the DNA research and planned to create a genetic data bank, which eventually could help living black Americans trace their African ancestry.
But as the scientific work progressed, Howard's relationship with the GSA deteriorated. By the fall of 1998, the GSA had rejected the scientists' request to conduct DNA studies on 300 skeletons, labeling the work experimental.
Meanwhile, the archaeologists Howard hired to examine hundreds of artifacts in New York argued that the GSA had never provided adequate funding for their work.
"It has been an uphill battle with very little support," said Warren Perry, the project's associate director for archaeology. "This project has been a battle for every penny."
Blakey said GSA officials sabotaged the team's efforts by failing to fund the entire approved research design, which he estimated would have cost $10 million. Howard's $5.4 million federal contract, he said, was not adequate for work on one of the world's most significant scientific sites.
"We did not need what is often called in black college circles 'a colored grant,' " Blakey said. "We needed real funding and under sufficient control to allow those of us with the expertise to carry out our plan. What we got was half of what we would need to carry out the project and constant second-guessing, naysaying and interference by the same Euro-American bureaucrats who had bungled the site from the beginning."
For officials at the GSA, the project had become a nagging series of delays, high costs and conflicts with African American advocates. The agency understood the demands of constructing massive buildings, but unearthing centuries-old bones was proving to be a managerial quagmire.
Former GSA chief of staff Brian A. Jackson said Howard had underestimated the work and time the project would require. He noted that even though the basic research was unfinished, Howard continued to seek additional funding for more sophisticated studies.
By 2001, the GSA had paid Howard $4.6 million and was reviewing invoices for an additional $700,000. Howard had submitted drafts of two reports. The archaeologists not only lacked a report, but their New York lab had been buried by the terrorist attack, though officials later concluded that critical material had not been irrevocably damaged.
Although the federal office building was completed in 1994, every phase of the preservation work, which the community had meticulously reviewed and approved, was still unfinished.
At times, the GSA was caught in the middle of conflicting demands from community groups. Citing community pressure, the agency scheduled a reinterment ceremony in August 2001 and shifted onto a fast-track schedule.
The GSA spent $56,700 for 420 coffins, manufactured and hand-carved in Ghana by 100 carvers working daily to finish in five weeks. The agency also paid $64,960 for seven mahogany burial crypts manufactured by a New York firm. But the ceremony never took place.
New York advocates complained of being excluded from the planning. The historic preservation council also objected, questioning why the government would bury artifacts and remains before the scientific reports were complete.
At the end of 2001, with Howard arguing that it needed more funds, the GSA negotiated a new agreement requiring Howard to complete the scientific research by December this year at no additional cost to the government.
Howard agreed. The GSA thought it had finally crafted the perfect solution. But the conflict was not over.
In May this year, the burial ground researchers retreated to Virginia's historic Moton Conference Center on the banks of the York River to assess the damage to their mission and to salvage what they could. As some civil rights movement strategists had done decades earlier, they used the tranquil spot to confront what they believed had been the fundamental issue: race.
For years, GSA officials had been unable to quell accusations that their positions during disagreements were rooted in a racist contempt for the advocates and the project. The scientists' accusations were no longer subtle.
Seated in large white wooden rockers on the center's porch, Blakey and archaeologists Perry and Jean Howson argued that the government's dogged insistence on a December deadline for the research left them without adequate time and money to complete critical analysis. Research gaps in the final reports, the scientists feared, would make the team appear incompetent.
"There is a gun to our heads," said Blakey, who is still the scientific director but is now a professor at the College of William and Mary. "What GSA is insisting on is for us to fail. . . . I think racism plays a special part, as well as arrogance. GSA has demonstrated from the beginning a pattern of disrespect and disregard for the expertise of black people."
"I absolutely agree," Perry said. "These are our ancestors, our people. . . . " He stopped speaking, and tears filled his eyes.
"They just interacted with us as though we are idiots and don't know what we are doing," said Howson, who is white. Then she, too, began to wipe away tears.
"We are all PhDs with years and decades of experience in this work, and their way of dealing with us on a day-to-day basis is that we're uppity and we're in their way and we're making their life miserable," she said.
Jackson, who is black, called the racial accusations "hogwash." The former GSA chief of staff stressed that the agency has committed to spend $22.3 million for the project. An additional $2 million is being negotiated. In addition to excavation and research costs, the government funds a public education office at the New York site and spent $500,000 on artwork dedicated to the site and located in the lobby of the federal office building.
"This project is of tremendous scientific, historic, cultural and community significance," Jackson said. "To try to pretend that it is not or to try to not address it would be crazy."
Last month, on the advice of a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers archaeologist, the GSA extended the deadline for Howard's final archaeological report to July 2003. In addition, the agency is negotiating a contract modification that would give the scientists additional money to complete their work.
Karl. H. Reichelt, the new GSA administrator for the New York area, said the burial ground is now the most important project in his region and will become a "true gem."
"What GSA is doing now will definitely bring this project to a successful conclusion regardless of what occurred in the prior decade," Reichelt said.
Blakey said he was encouraged but still disappointed that the lack of funding for the DNA and chemical tests means the researchers will be unable to determine the origins of the majority of the burial ground population.
Destination Not Reached
The lobby of the federal building at 290 Broadway today is filled with tributes to the African Burial Ground. Visitors circle a massive sculpture called "Africa Rising" and look at artwork with haunting images of blood-red slave ships and brown and tan faces floating above a bed of white skulls.
Howard Dodson, director of New York's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, said that by now, the site should be well on its way to becoming "a kind of home-going destination for people of African descent around the world."
But in the far corner of the federal building's lobby, one of the miniature coffins made in Ghana to satisfy government specifications -- deep enough for a skull, long enough for a leg bone -- waited for its assigned cargo. Federal officials now say the reinterment will take place next year, 12 years after the first excavations.
Nearby, a massive window framed the exposed section of the burial ground, a fenced grassy lot. At a far corner, a patch of outdoor carpet cloaked the earth that waits for the mahogany crypts stacked out of sight in a locked storage room.