New York Times: Discovery of Burial Ground Backs a Less Conventional Version of Harlem’s History

January 27, 2016 3:51 pm In the News

New York Times: By David W. Dunlap

Photo by Angel Franco/ The New York Times

Harlem’s African roots are at last coming to light.

Kept apart in life, pushed aside after death, the black residents of Harlem in the 1600s, 1700s and 1800s have seemingly emerged from an unlikely spot: beneath a bus depot near the Harlem River where a “Negro burying ground” was once maintained by the first church in the Dutch settlement of Nieuw Haarlem.

The discovery of 140 bones by archaeologists digging within the decommissioned depot was announced last week by Melissa Mark-Viverito, the City Council speaker, and the Rev. Patricia A. Singletary, pastor of theElmendorf Reformed Church on East 121st Street, the successor to the Harlem Reformed Dutch Church of 1660.

Most poignant was a skull found in a trench halfway between the large bus-wash stall and a vehicle inspection station, near the center of the 2.4-acre depot. On examination, Vincent H. Stefan of Lehman College, who specializes in human skeletal biology, concluded that it belonged to an adult woman who was likely of African descent. The pastor has called her Nana, out of respect.

Though small in scale in archaeological terms, the find offers an important and intimate link to a long-forgotten past.

It should help rewrite conventional history, which portrays Harlem as a white enclave until the 20th century, when African-Americans began moving there in great numbers. And it buttresses an argument long made by the Harlem African Burial Ground Task Force that black people, free and enslaved, helped build Harlem from the very beginning.

“Our prayer was that the remains would reveal themselves,” Ms. Singletary said on Tuesday, during an interview in the church social hall. “Remember, Sharon? We said, ‘Bones rise up.’”

“Sharon” is Sharon Wilkins, the deputy borough historian of Manhattan and a member of the task force. “These discoveries are a validation of our work and our research,” she said. Ms. Wilkins and Jean Ballard Terepka, another task force member, pored over the records of several churches to find at least 60 people — identified as “colored,” “Negro” or “African” — who were buried at the river’s edge. Not all were members of the Reformed church.

Ms. Singletary said she hoped the remains could return to the site one day as part of a memorial within whatever redevelopment project comes after the depot.

The last bus rolled out of the 126th Street Bus Depot a year ago. TheNew York City Economic Development Corporation, which is overseeing long-term redevelopment of the site, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which still uses the depot for emergencies like the blizzard last weekend, approved the excavation of four trenches by an archaeological team from AKRF, led by A. Michael Pappalardo. He was on the team six years ago that unearthed an 18th-century sailing vessel at the World Trade Center site.