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Woman brings buried slaves dignity

Photo by Carly Farrell

Photo by Carly Farrell

ALBANY, Ga. -- Known as slaves in life, they slept unknown for centuries in New York City. A woman from Albany started a course that brought them dignity in death.

Albany native Peggy King-Jorde spoke at the Albany Civil Rights Institute Thursday on the reclamation of a massive "African burial bround" from government office development.

"There were 10,000 to 20,000 African-Americans buried in New York at this site from the 17th through the 18th centuries," King-Jorde said. "Then it was forgotten about."

The cemetery sat on 5 1/2 acres just outside the city limits starting in the 1700s. Blacks were not allowed to be buried in the city limits. By the 18th century, the slave population in New York had grown to about 20 percent of the entire city. Only one city had a higher percentage of slaves, Charleston, S.C.

So when slaves died, bodies were piled one on top of the other in graves without markers until the site was paved over and the city grew around it.

One average New Yorker heard in 1991 that construction of a new federal office building had unearthed some black remains. A history buff, Harry Wuster, a white city parks employee, thought he would tell a pal about it.

Wuster said over a brown-bag lunch to King-Jorde, "You've got to do something about this."

An architect, King-Jorde began with memos to the mayor from her office in one of the mayor's many bureaus. The bureaucracy was unmovable at first.

Cracks began to appear when King-Jorde got the community involved. Pictures and facts were leaked to the New York Times, and the story appeared in Washington, D.C. More cracks in the bureaucracy resulted. Construction was halted.

The people had stopped a 34-story, $270 million federal office building's construction. The first of 400 bodies of men, women and children were unearthed.

The black community acted. Protests were held at the site. Black archeologists were hired. The digging and construction halted.

In 1993, the African Burial Ground was designated a National Historic Landmark. In 2003 the unearthed remains were reburied.

It wasn't easy, and King-Jorde credits the work of the community, activists, students and ordinary people for preserving a part of American history.

"It is critical that we know as much as we can about our African ancestry," King-Jorde said. "There is so little known about slavery on these shores at that time. That many slaves in New York City? Who heard of it?"