Honor at last: Former slaves reburied centuries later
Albany, N.Y. — Their exhumed bones point to the hard lives of slaves: arthritic backs, missing teeth, muscular frames. In death, they were wrapped in shrouds, buried in pine boxes and — over centuries — forgotten.
Remains of the 14 presumed slaves will soon be reburied near the Hudson River, 11 years after construction workers uncovered the unmarked gravesite. This time, local volunteers are honoring the seven adults, five infants and two children in a way that would have been unthinkable when they died. They will be publicly memorialized and buried in personalized boxes beside prominent families in old Albany.
“It’s something we agonize over because it’s very rare that you have an opportunity to not just speak about the lives of the enslaved, but to actually do something to honor them,” said Cordell Reaves, of the Schuyler Flatts Burial Ground Project. “We have an obligation to make sure that these people receive a level of dignity and respect that they never received in life.”
St. Agnes Cemetery donated a prime plot high on a hillside. Kelly Grimaldi, historian for the Roman Catholic cemetery, said they chose granite over marble because it will last forever. The remains will be placed in handcrafted boxes, each decorated with the symbol for Sankofa, which Reaves translates from the language of Ghana as “return and fetch it.”
Their headstone is already set. The etching, echoing the style of 18th-century graves, reads: “Here lies the remains of 14 souls known only to God. Enslaved in life, they are slaves no more.”
Archeologists found remains in 2005 after a backhoe operator uncovered a skull during sewer construction just north of Albany. Graves were in two rows, heads pointed west.
No personal items were exhumed, though the graves still yielded clues about who they were.
The type of wrought iron nails on the coffins and brass pins on the shrouds indicated burials in the 18th or early 19th centuries. They were buried on the former site of a farm owned by members of the locally prominent Schuyler family, who kept slaves.
DNA tests on five of the women and one man showed maternal ancestry either from Africa and Madagascar. Another woman, identified as of African descent based on the shape of her bones, had Native American roots on her mother’s side. Isotope analyses of their remains show they were born locally. Given the time, the place and their race, they were almost certainly slaves.
The thin historical record of slaves is often limited to wills, for sale ads and runaway notices. One rare glimpse from the Schuyler farm comes in the memoir of a woman who spent time there as a girl in the 1760s. Anne Grant writes of slaves cutting wood, threshing wheat, cooking and eating under a big shade tree. In language that can make 21st-century readers wince, Grant described the “gentle treatment” of slaves in the area.
But the bones suggest lives that were anything but.
The adults had muscular hands, arms and legs consistent with hard work. They were plagued by arthritis and missing teeth. One woman had arthritis in her back, shoulder and jaw by her 30s. Her front teeth had small notches in them, possibly from pulling thread across them repeatedly. Another woman, older than 50, had arthritis in all her major joints, fractures on her neck and lower back, and four broken ribs.
Any markers on the graves were long gone by the time the remains were uncovered. Schuyler Flatts Burial Ground Project manager Evelyn Kamili King said it’s her mission to see that they are never forgotten again.
“This is what I need to do for my African ancestors,” she said.
Individually decorated boxes with the remains will lie in state on Friday, June 17, at the nearby Schuyler Mansion, a state historic site once inhabited by relatives of the farm operators. They will be buried the next day on a landscaped cemetery hillside within walking distance from where they were first buried.