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Painting Human Gold

In the early 20th century, as development spread in the last rural area on Manhattan’s northern tip, construction began to raze old farmlands preparing to lay out streets. In 1903, workers found a burial ground near 10th Avenue and 212th Street. The reports said “huge skeletons” with “iron balls and chains hanging from their limbs,” some buried in an upright position, had been found in a grove of trees on top of a knoll that rose 12 feet above 10th Avenue. They confirmed that the human remains were “African” and agreed the site was a burial ground for the enslaved. Writing about the site in 1924, Reginald Pelham Bolton observed: “The dread of ‘an uprising of blacks’ in 1722 prompted an act providing that all negroes and blacks be buried by daylight. The act was amended afterward so that not more than twelve negroes should attend a funeral. The penalty for the violation of this statute was a public flogging. The corpses were buried in a shroud denying the slaves to be buried without any outward signs of grief, ceremonial tokens, nor flowers. In addition to their clothing, they had been stripped of identity, heritage and any trace of home or homeland. Only a child’s skeleton was reported to be found, with a little bead necklace. The discovery was of no importance to contractors and after piling all the bones for a brief examination from authorities and museum representatives, wasted no time in obliterating all trace of the site.” With development, especially during the 1920’s construction of the subway lines, more remains and sites continued to be found which included slaves, the fallen of the Revolutionary War and Native Americans. While the bones of the settlers, prominent families and war heroes were reinterred in nearby cemeteries, the rest of the remains suffered a final injustice. “The remains of these humble workers of the past reminds us of the time when, even in this neighborhood, the practice of slavery was customary. Perhaps no other relic of the past could more decidedly mark the difference between the past and the present than the bones of these poor unwilling immigrants, whose labors cleared the primeval forest, cultivated the unturned sods, and prepared the way for the civilization that followed.” -RPB

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