A $275 million federal construction site in 1991 unveiled the cemetery dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries, when black people were still enslaved in the state. It is the largest and oldest collection of colonial-era remains of free and enslaved Africans in the United States, according to the National Park Service.
It took protests by activists, scholars, politicians and black New Yorkers to halt construction on the government building and contract an African American anthropologist to oversee the exhumation of the remains of 419 men, women and children.
Ultimately, the African Burial Ground Project shattered barriers for people of color in science, creating a diverse team of geneticists, anthropologists, chemists, archaeologists and other researchers to work on the dig and analyze the remains.
“We were ethnically diverse — gender, too. But the thing that united us was a desire to do research in a different way, not do the same old, same old,” said Fatimah Jackson, who led the project’s genetic research.
Instead of following traditional research methods — doing work in private laboratories, out of view of the public — project director Michael Blakey treated the descendant African American communities like clients and let their desires guide the team’s research. Their questions were personal, rather than scientific. They wanted to know where the people were from but also what their lives were like, whether they resisted slavery and how their culture evolved from African to African American.
Black New Yorkers also pushed to conduct the analysis at Howard University, Jackson said, where black historians, archaeologists, skeletal biologists and anthropologists would guide the work. They wanted to ensure that the analysis of the remains went beyond superficial questions.
“The preceding attitudes about skeletal populations was that you just want to identify their gender, their race, their age,” Jackson said.
The broader way of thinking was particularly important for Jackson’s field. At the time, genetics was struggling to emerge from a crisis period after World War II, when it was tied to Nazi Germany’s eugenics program. Genetic research also formed the basis for forced sterilizations that occurred across the United States until the 1960s, further compromising the field’s credibility.
“You’d go to the national genetics meetings and there’d be a lot of very old white men saying, ‘What are we going to do?’ ” recalled Jackson.
For Jackson, who is black, fascination with the human genome came from a different perspective — a perspective rooted in another jean. Growing up in the era of slim-fit pants, jeans never fit her right.
“They never quite appropriately covered our derrieres, and it got me thinking, 'Who's making these? Why don't they make enough room?' ” she said.
As a product of Colorado’s segregated school system, going to college at Cornell University gave blue jeans new meaning to Jackson.
“I could see physical differences in people with different ancestries,” she said. “I wondered what did that mean, and why are these jeans not made for my physique. Asking those kinds of questions, related to my own personal well-being, really got me interested and led me to genetics.”
Scientists have always drawn on their personal experience to guide their research, so the credibility of their fields depends on multiple voices and perspectives to find truths.
“We limited ourselves in the past as Western scientists, ignoring women and people of color,” Jackson said. “The truth has been very Eurocentric, androgynous, narrow and exclusive,” allowing ideas like eugenics to flourish.
Genetics bounced back in 1990 with the launch of the Human Genome Project, a national quest to sequence the human genome in its entirety. The buzz around genetics grew even more with the discovery of the African Burial Ground a year later.
It became clear that work on the African Burial Ground would involve unlearning certain research methods and creating new ones. Admixture, one of the most widely accepted genetics research methods at the time, used a single genetic trait to determine from which continent a person originated, racially classify them and determine whether they were racially mixed.
When the genetic results concluded that sets of remains came from European people — despite archaeological evidence of African ancestry, like tribal Nigerian waist beads and caskets embossed in Ghanaian figures facing east toward Africa — it became clear that racial assumptions informing admixture methodology didn’t align with modern genetic realities of the people in the African Burial Ground.
Jackson is forthright in her belief that race doesn’t exist. While diversity among modern humans exists “below the racial level,” she says, geneticists are working to divorce sociological definitions of race — which inform methods like admixture — from the field. Admixture was a vestige of eugenics that persisted and formed the basis for Virginia’s 1924 Racial Integrity Act that made it illegal for whites to marry nonwhites “with no other admixture of blood than white and American Indian.”
For Jackson, the African Burial Ground was a reminder that “the same old paradigms were lingering about like a bad smell in the world.”
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