For years, there were dead slaves underfoot in downtown New York City — some experts believe there still are.
When construction unearthed a sprawling slave cemetery near New York’s city hall in the early 1990s, the discovery “changed” the field of black archeology, according to Theresa Singleton, an archeologist for the Smithsonian. “Until recently, even some black scholars considered African American archeology a waste of time,” she said then.
But no more.
And now, archeologists hope that a construction project just a little ways to the south, in Brooklyn, will reap similar rewards.
City officials chose a location between Brooklyn’s Eight and Ninth Streets, near Third Avenue as the site of a new kindergarten in 2015.
Their colleagues in the Office of Parks told them that they needed to hold on, and that a search for human remains had to be conducted before construction could begin.
Although no remains have been found yet, a new discovery by the assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of New York, Kevan Cleary, has historians hopeful that something will be uncovered soon, according to The New York Times.
And it’s not bones Cleary’s found, but a journal that had been sitting in storage at the New York Public Library.
The journal chronicles three years in the life of farmer and slaveowner Adriance Van Brunt, who lived on the proposed school site in the early 19th century on the outskirts of the Village of Brooklyn.
Much of the diary is given to the day-to-day operations of running a small agrarian business — concerns over lack of rain and tales of selling potatoes in town.
But some of it deals with Van Brunt’s slaves.
When the diary begins, the Van Brunt family had two slaves — by the time the journal ends, they owned 10.
Things got particularly rough for the black members of the household in 1828. At least two died over a two month period.
“Buried old Mr. Bennet Aged 80,” Van Brunt recorded in the book in September, adding, “Also a Black woman.”
The death the next month has piqued quite a bit of historian interest — Van Brunt goes into detail describing a young slave’s death with a level of specificity that the farmer gave to no one else in the diary except his ailing mother.
September 24, 1828: “Harry taken very sick. Doc Hunt bled him. Nancy (Black girl) has been two days. She was moved to the kitchen garret.”
Then, October 1, 1828: “Nancy got worse. She died about 2 o’clock last night.” The farmer describes how the household woke up because of the death, and tells how “Mary Ann the black woman was with her when she died.”
Right after the girl’s death, Van Brunt describes how he ordered two of his men to go “with the little waggon to fetch her mother. She came immediately. They did all that was to be done. We went to bed again.”
And Nancy makes one final appearance: for her burial. “Frank brought up a coffin from Mr. O’Connell’s,” as two farmhands “attended to digging the grave, inviting the people,” and another hand “fetched Nancy’s mother back again with our Horses and Waggon. All was done in order.”
That passage has archeologists wondering if Nancy is still beneath the ground set for construction of the school, and if any of Van Brunt’s other slaves are resting there as well.
Adding some credence to that school of thought is a post-bellum account of Battle of Brooklyn by historian T.W. Field, that claims Revolutionary War soldiers were “mingled with the remains of the servile sons of Africa” in a slave cemetery on Van Brunt’s property.
For now, workers are still searching for Nancy and her fellow slaves. An expert hired by the city says that they should continue as “it is entirely possible that human remains have been left behind.”