Hush Child Shhh
Gewndolyn Joyce Mintz
Slave Journey Comes to Close
October 3 & 4, 2003
New York —
Amid tears and joy, speech and song, the skeletal remains of 419 slaves were reinterred in the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan.
A three-hour ceremony in New York concluded the Rites of Ancestral Return: Commemorating the Colonial African Heritage, a series of vigils and ceremonies that took place in these cities prior: Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; Baltimore; Wilmington, Del.; and Newark, N.J.
In May 1991, the United States General Services Administration began preliminary work for a federal office tower at Broadway and Duane Streets and the former gravesite, stretching five acres, was unearthed. The land had been allocated to the city’s black population, some free, most enslaved, in the late 1600s when even cemeteries were segregated. As the city expanded its boundaries, it appropriated the land and closed the cemetery. With the passage of time, the original intent of the land became memory until the excavation more than a decade ago. I knew we wouldn’t always be forgotten.
Slavery thrived in New York until 1827 when the state abolished it. Until then, New York City rivaled Charleston, S.C., as a slave-trading center.
Enslaved Africans made up about 40 percent of the Dutch colony New Amsterdam, arriving around 1626, as they were promised to would-be settlers. These same slaves built the first streets of the city, the first public buildings, Trinity Church, and the wall—from which Wall Street derives its name—that kept the colony safe from invasion. The slaves are believed to be one of the first commodities sold in the area, which Mayor Michael Bloomberg called a painful landmark.
The skeletons of four bodies—a man, a woman, a girl, a boy—symbolic of the estimated 20,000 that were buried, moved from city to city for the events, coordinated by Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the General Services Administration.
In Newark, the mahogany coffins, which had been handcrafted in Ghana and decorated with African tribal symbols and village scenes, were anointed with oil and sent off with traditional hymns and chanting. They were delivered by motorboat to South Street Seaport by the New Jersey State Police. Hush, child, why you crying? Hush, now, shhh. No need for it. This passage looks easy. Rolling waters to cross, but no whips, no chains. Feels like a memory, but I think we’re safe in this vessel.
The coffins were carried by a horse-drawn hearse, accompanied by dozens, including Bloomberg. To the tune of  Just a Closer Walk with Thee, the procession made its way through the Canyon of Heroes to the burial site. Four horse-drawn wagons followed, bearing the remains of the 415 others. The clop clop clop, that noise? Why, child, that’s just the horses movin’ and ain’t that somethin’ new? I ain’t never got to ride before.
The procession prepared the final return of the remains, which had been at Howard University in Washington since 1993, being examined by a team of biological anthropologists, led by Dr. Michael Blakey.
The findings indicate, as reported by the chief anthropologist, that the slaves lived under conditions that ultimately kill. Forensic evidence showed that many had been forced to carry loads between 40 to 80 kilograms —about 88 to 176 pounds. Wan’t nothin’ compared to the loads we carried in our hearts. Blakey stated, These people were obviously working at the very margins of human endurance and capacity. Arguably, a few were worked to death in a time when it was considered cost-effective to work slaves to death. Even some six-year-old children showed signs of being worked in what we would today consider an extreme way.
Other conclusions drawn indicate that about 50 percent of the colonial Africans in New York died by age 12, and about 40 percent of the skeletons found which belonged to preadolescent children showed signs of malnutrition, scurvy, rickets, and anemia. An estimated 30 to 40 percent found died in infancy. Oh yes, we died early and young. My mama used to say we’d have to work hard, but we wouldn’t have to work long.
The ceremony, at which Bloomberg welcomed the slaves home, was punctuated by cries and suggestion of reparations. Now ain’t that somethin’. Over three hundred years and you think somebody would’ve learned somethin’. Looks like they don’t know either; you can’t put a price on a soul. The Rev. Herbert Daughtry first mentioned it. New York, he said, would not be if not for the labor of slaves. It was time to pay up, he stated, adding, They owe us. Now who’s supposed to pay? And who they gonna pay? The guilty parties and the innocent ones all dead now. Best thing’d be to go on, just go on and be thankful for the change, even if it was a long time comin’. Lord, children be grateful for the written words and the chance to raise your babies and the time to rest. Cain’t never be any real justice, but there can be a movin’ on.
An overnight vigil brought the service to a close and the remains of the 419 colonial slaves were placed into seven massive crypts, which were sealed and reburied. Listen—you hear the rhythm calling? You hear the drums? I’mo hush now. Child, shhhh. I think we’re going home.
When I read about this ceremony, I immediately heard a voice within me. The form of the piece came to be because I needed to provide reference for the narrator’s reactions. I tried a preface, then an endnote. I decided finally on the news story format because in several of my works, I am inspired by news stories and I try to capture and present a voice beyond the headline. In this case, it proved to be the most logical presentation.
Note: Articles from the web sites of Seeingblack.com, New York Times, New York Daily News, San Francisco Bay View, The Salt Lake Tribune, www.laststoptofreedom, BBC News, and the National Institutes of Health were used to create the news story for this work.