By Keely Clinton
In late August of this year the W. Montague Cobb Research Lab received a letter of great significance from a man inquiring about one of the individuals in the New York African Burial Ground. The individual was a woman, age unknown, was compared to our modern day Sandra Bland by the mode in which she was murdered. She was described to have been laid to rest with a musket ball embedded in her shoulder blade and forearm twisted out of joint. With this information and a peaked interested in this woman I embarked on a literary journey to find her. Because there are no names associated with the archaeological archives I searched burial by burial looking for an individual fitting this description. It was only on the eve of the deadline of this article that I came across Burial No.25, I found her!
Just as was described in the letter she was buried with a lead musket ball lodged beneath her fourth rib with an oblique fracture of her lower right arm that had been caused by twisting. In addition to these lesions she had a large hole at the center of her left scapula more than likely the entry point of the bullet along with bone fractures to the face suggesting blunt-force trauma occurred. Our mystery woman was approximately 20- 24 years old when she died more than likely from the injuries ensued. Unfortunately, evidence states she survived a few days after the attack, presumably in tormenting agony. What the evidence doesn’t tell us is WHY she was murdered. It is well known that slaves were not killed very often since they were seen as property and no slave owner wanted to lose a profit. So was this woman the Rosa Parks of her day? Was she standing up for something? Or was she the subject of a brutal beating without just cause just as our sister Sandra Bland?
We know that this woman endured ongoing physical labor, as was the principal purpose of slaves in New York. This is proven by the scarring shown on each ulna (one of the lower arm bones) very common in the skeletal remains of slaves suggesting habitual activity using these muscles. An interesting fact about this this burial is that it lies directly above Burial No.32, a man 50-60 years of age, allowing one to conclude the interment of this body was purposely placed with the other. Excavation notes the distance between the two individuals is only 0.12’ in elevation. Curiosity leads me to the next piece of the puzzle, who was HE?! Why did they share a grave? Did they die for the same reasons/ causes? What can the DNA of the grave soil tell us that archaeological records cannot?
Hopefully more research will lead us to answers, but until then we should bask in the essence of the known. We found HER and are looking to multiply the numbers of identified individuals of the NYABG. As reportedly mentioned by Bernard L. Richardson, dean of the chapel at Howard University, “Even though we can’t call their names, we know them. We give thanks for the opportunity to connect with our past and our future. Oh God, you have made these bones live again [New York Historical Society].” ****