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The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture: African Burial Ground

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April 13, 2015 by lspencer12

The majority of my academic work has been focused on African American histories from the early colonization of America to Reconstruction. Previously I have researched topics on African American burial traditions. While conducing this research I have used resources from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. For that reason I chose to do a review of an exhibition entitled African Burial Ground which is hosted by the Shomburg Center.
The Shomburg Center is a division of the New York Public Library System, which specialize in reference and archival collections dedicated to the study and research of African American culture and history and of other peoples of African descent. The mission of the New York Public Library system and the Schomburg Center is to “Inspire lifelong learning, advance knowledge, and strengthen our communities.” The Center supports the library’s mission by providing several distinct sections which allows the public to access black culture. The mission of the library/center is supported by the core values of the institution. These core values focus on accountability, freedom, innovation, passion, excellence, expertise and teamwork. All of these core values aid in producing a better library system for the public.
The Schomburg Center is divided into five areas which allow researchers to access to numerous resources. Under the Moving Images and Sound Division is the Educational and Cultural Programing, this the component which exhibitions are sponsored. There are several exhibition portals including the online exhibition portal. Here is where the African Burial Ground exhibition is located.
As eluded to earlier this site is both an exhibition and an educational resource. The exhibition itself by its nature is educational. This is a free learning choice for many of the visitors to the site. The information contained in the exhibitions is accessible to visitors of most educational levels.
The intended audience for this exhibitions varies but it is targeted for those researchers interested mainly in African and African American culture, educators, and local/regional historians. It has the potential to attach researchers with interest ranging from Colonial America to death to regional/local history of New York. And being that the exhibition is online and hosted on the library site there is a chance to the site is also marketing itself to visitors to New York Public Library system.
At one level visitors to the exhibition would only have to have general knowledge of slavery to derive meaning from the exhibition. However, this exhibitions is excellent for those who have prior knowledge of any number of topics which may be related to early life in colonial New York. So, in that aspect the exhibition is a scaffold learning experience for those with more advance knowledge of subject matters which may be related. Therefore, I this exemplifies the library mission to advance knowledge and strengthen the community.
This exhibition is a collaborative effort between New York Public Library System and the General Service Administration (GSA). The exhibition receives funding support from the General Service Administration. The General Service Administration is a division within the federal government which manages property leased by the government. They became involved with the project when it was discovered during the construction phase that property which had been purchase by the government had been constructed on an old burial site.
The exhibition is divided into two sections one is entitled the Rites of Ancestral Return and Explore the African Burial Ground. Visitors to the exhibition are able to enter the site by clicking on one of the two headings. If a visitor choses to access the site through The African Burial Ground, they will find the exhibition which contains human remains and artifacts of a colonial burial site. Users can see the artifacts recovered from the gravesites.
By clicking on the human remains, visitors will learn basic information concerning the individuals who were originally buried in the gravesite information such as the gender, age, and personal details of the person’s life based on artifacts recovered from the burial site and forensic examination of the remains. For example, burial 335 and 356 is the remains of a young mother and infant. Evidence suggest that the mother preformed intense labor of some type. Artifacts found with these two individual suggest that that some type of ceremonial or religious tradition had occurred prior to the infant being laid to rest with its mother.
Non-human artifacts which were recovered can also be examined, these items includes buttons, beads, pins, etc. These artifact offer details into the lives of the people who were enshrined during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For example, burial 340 contained women’s beads. It is being suggested that the beads she wore were from Venice. The authors of the site suggest that she may have acquired the beads in Africa prior to being brought to the colonies. This from an educational standpoint touches upon the economic ties and contacts with Europeans that Africans had prior to and during the transatlantic slave trade.
Visitors who chose to explore the Rites of Ancestral Return will find information commemorating Africans in the Americas. This part of the site provides information showing the repatriation of the remains which were recovered from the construction site. Here visitor can learn of the tradition burial rituals practiced by people of African descent throughout the Americas. For example, there is a video of “Women of the Calabash” leading traditional African drummers to the burial ceremony. This particular video offers insight to the importance of giving members of the community a proper burial and the importance of the African drum in ceremonial use.
This part of the site also contains a map with the layout of the area in which the cemetery was discovered. The site itself is spread out over several city blocks and contains the remains of several hundred Africans and/or African Americans living in New York dating back to the seventeenth century.
Visitors are able to orient them by using the relationship between points known in present day New York juxtaposed with sites identified from the colonial period.
The metadata contained in this exhibition is limited to the video which is posted. From the videos the time, size, and what program the video is view in can be determined. From the site research can click on the icon for “missing pixel”, this the company which designed the graphics for the site. From their site it can only be determined that they did the work for The Schomburg Center in September of 2004, using Flash Action Script 2.0. The copyright and terms for use of the material can be found under the policies of the New York Public Library. The library owns the rights to some of the material and artifacts but in the cases in which the rights are not owned by the library they make it perfectly clear where lies the responsibility for obtaining the rights to use the materials.
Although the exhibition is over ten years old, the exhibition does support the mission of the Schomburg Center. It does advance the knowledge of what is known about slavery and African American life in colonial New York. By advancing the knowledge of what is known about slavery in the eighteenth century I feel it does inspire further exploration of topics which are connected. I believe that novice as well as seasoned researches visitors to this exhibition will find use information to expand their knowledge base.
As someone who has done research on death and burial traditions, this exhibition is useful in that it opens a door into black lives which is rarely seen. There are very few clues into the lives of blacks who lived during the colonial period, this website provide some clues as to the harshness of their lives and some of the traditions which they were able to retain from Africa. The exhibition also, provides insight into the size of the black community in New York during that time period. It show that they were organized in some manner and were permitted to bury members of the community in a dignified manner.
The exhibition does a good job of tying the past to the present with the commemoration ceremony. Visitors to the site can see from modern day interpretations what a burial ceremony may have looked like in the past. This allows visitors to gain a comparison of what remain today as retentions of these traditional rituals.


3 comments »

  1. jeldredge1 says:

    I’m really intrigued by this site now. I have always been interested in the case of the African Burial Ground in New York, especially the community activism that sprouted out of the desire to keep the site sacred and learn from it as a public history space. I have participated in archaeology projects on late 19th- early 20th century African American cemeteries, and I have since been intrigued by the traces of black cultural and religious practices that can be seen above and below ground. I definitely want to look through this site as see if I can find any parallels in the human and non- human artifacts found at this Colonial era site. Do you think that this collection is among the best to be found for African American heritage and history presented through the libraries of major cities? I would think that NYC would have one of the best collections.

  2. nbrown24 says:

    After reading your review I took a look at the site. I thought it is a great way to preserve the history of a sect of the population that seems to have little written records, at least from that time. There are some great tidbits of information on the site and I like how interactive it is. It is interesting to learn about the traditions that seem to be relatively unknown by the general population. The map was a great tool as well and shows how interspersed the African American population was within the city. I only wish that there was more! It appears that the site hasn’t been updated in a while, which is a shame. I feel that there is so much information they could add that would really make it a go-to place for information on colonial African American life.

  3. rjordan10 says:

    After I read your review, I also visited the site; I thought it was really interesting. I’ve always liked cemeteries, so it was interesting to see how things were handled before cemeteries came into existence. I did my undergrad in Rome (Georgia), and some of the content of the site reminded me of the Etowah Indian Mounds, which is near there, even though the time periods are different, etc.

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