One of the major influencing factors in my decision to read American Studies at the University of Leicester was my long held interest in the history of slavery. Having come from the hometown of a leading abolitionist, Thomas Clarkson, in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, I have studied the subject from a young age. It was perhaps these driving forces that led me to apply for a University travel scholarship to investigate the African Burial Ground in New York City.
I have often found that the history of African Americans concentrates on the South, so when I began my search for a place of historical significance which involved slavery I did not expect to find this burial ground in the heart of Manhattan. The story of the African Burial Ground was more extraordinary than I could every have expected, especially because of its location. Surrounded by towering skyscrapers in Manhattan, it is a short walk from Ground Zero, Wall Street and City Hall. It covers an area of approximately six acres on a plot now north of Wall Street. Architects predict that around 20,000 Africans and African Americans were buried there by 1794. It seems almost impossible therefore how this site could have been forgotten for 200 years and only re-discovered in 1991.
The African Burial Ground’s discovery appears to have awakened New York to its history generally, but especially involving slavery. There has been a large surge in African American art influenced by the burial ground, which I was also able to view on the trip in a new permanent exhibition at the New York Historical Society called ‘Slavery in New York’. This is evidence of the far-reaching effects the burial ground has had and will continue to have.
I feel that the trip was the most important learning experience I have ever had not only because of the subject, but because I was able to see first-hand what happens when such a brilliant discovery is made and to feel how inspiring it is to see a community and a country influenced by it.