ALBANY — Some may have spotted a documentary crew filming in Albany on Thursday. Peggy King Jorde, a cultural projects consultant and Albany native, was joined by Annina Van Neel-Hayes, a Namibian-born environmentalist, and Tommy Gregors, the executive director of the Thronateeska Heritage Center, for a discussion of how the cotton trade in the South fueled Britain’s textile trade and how slavery was a part of that.
London-based filmmakers Joseph Curran and Dominic Aubrey de Vere filmed the conversation for their documentary titled “A Story of Bones.”
The documentary follows Neel-Hayes in her fight to preserve a massive African slave burial ground on the island of St. Helena, famously known as the island where Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled and died. Although Bonaparte’s body was removed, his tomb remains protected on the island, but the thousands of African corpses have been forgotten over time.
In Neel-Hayes’ research, she came across the work of another woman more than a decade before who had preserved an African slave burial site in New York City. Together they are working to bring the same respect to the St. Helena burial ground.
“The reason I reached out to Peggy was because the African burial ground on St. Helena — although it is such an important and significant site for the transatlantic slave trade — the community has not taken ownership of that burial ground,” Neel-Hayes said. “The burial ground has been desecrated several times over the last 40 years. It doesn’t look like a burial ground, and I’ve been living and working on the island for seven years, — I’m originally from Namibia, so, Africa — and I’ve been trying to get the community to take ownership and custodianship of that burial ground.
“We’ve been trying, in most cases fighting, with the government in order to protect that burial ground and memorialize the story of the liberated Africans that were brought to the island, which were 26,000 liberated Africans that were brought to St. Helena island and at least 8000 of them are buried on the island.”
St. Helena is a British territory in the Caribbean with a governor appointed by the queen. According to Neel-Hayes, although the slave trade was abolished by the British in 1807, the booming textile industry still directly benefited from the cotton trade in the United States, which was interlinked with slavery. Albany was a hub of the cotton and slave industries.
Gregors offered historical insight into the cotton and slave trade of the South and Albany’s part in it. St. Helena itself was a middle passage for slaves out of Africa to be shipped to other parts of the Caribbean and the Americas.
Another reason for the film crew to come to Albany was for a tour of King Jorde’s hometown in return for being invited to be a part of the St. Helena fight.
“I had an opportunity to visit Annina on the island of St. Helena, where she was able to show me the site and I was able to share with her my insights and my experience in the New York fight to preserve the burial ground,” King Jorde said. “We’re now here in Albany, and Annina’s here in the States to come visit me, to see where I come from, and to also visit the African burial ground in New York City.”
The burial ground in New York was discovered before the construction of a government office building. At the time, King Jorde worked for former New York City Mayor David Dinkins. According to King Jorde, she had heard that the archaeologists on site had been issued an unofficial gag order. She and another group of individuals visited the site, where she was the only African American present. When a person asked the site archaeologist about the burial ground, his treatment fueled her passion to preserve the burial ground in New York, where first-generation African slaves were at rest.
“When we got to the gate, one of the archaeologists came to the gate, and he talked about what they found — all kinds of other artifacts — and he was really forthcoming about a lot of little artifacts that he found, but when the question was raised by one of the people standing there, ‘Hey, we heard that this was a burial site for enslaved Africans — first generation’, you know, that was amazing for people because people did not associate slavery and New York City,” King Jorde said.
“They were really eager to know that — forget about all the little shards of pottery that they were finding — and the response from this archaeologist, because I knew he had been given a gag order. His response was ‘well, no,’ and he just sort of dismissed it, and at that moment — and I will kind of say it’s kind of on the heels of the passing of my father (Civil Rights Attorney C.B. King) — and on that moment, what flashed was I was thinking about all those people in the Civil Rights Movement, the Albany Movement, all throughout the South who fought.
“Even before the movement there were black people who fought for freedom, who fought for their rights and resisted enslavement, and in the blink of an eye, this gentleman could erase their lives by simply saying ‘Oh no, it’s not significant,’ and at that moment I thought about my parents, and I thought of my grandparents and I thought of all the other people that I knew growing up who risked their lives, who put their lives on the line, who put everything on the line, and how dare one human being completely erase their lives and what they did for their community. And it was then that you know you can’t walk away from that and be OK with it.”
Now, years later, Neel-Hayes is walking on a similar path in St. Helena. Asked how it feels to tell the story and the history behind this burial ground to people who might not know it exists, Neel-Hayes said, “It’s scary. It’s overwhelming. It’s intimidating in a way as well because as we’re telling this story, we’re learning, so you’re conscious of the fact that people hearing this for the first time don’t have any sense of connection to it. They don’t have a sense of spiritual connection to it, educational, no familial ties, and you’re left with trying to bridge so many gaps, which has been the hardest part for me because in trying to engage the community on St. Helena that lives in that space and know a little bit about the history — although it does not feature at all in their curriculum — and that’s pretty much the same for the Brits.
“The story has not been given the recognition that it deserves, and that is part of the challenge. How we tell this story has to be considered, and has to be considered from people from various aspects and fields of expertise. How we tell the story is just as important as the story.”
The story of the St. Helena burial ground will be told through the documentary which is still in the filming process.