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Archeology of African Americans

So much of the history of America is about the struggle for liberty and equality. Many historic places evoke that struggle powerfully. Some are well known and are part of a past we learn about from textbooks. Others require that we keep learning, in and out of school. The African American past is a rich and complex part of the American history that archeology helps us discover.

Visit sites across the nation to learn how archeology of African American sites reveals the lives of households and communities from the earliest colonies to the recent past. Also see the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery to learn more about enslaved Africans and their descendants living in the Chesapeake, Carolinas, and Caribbean during the Colonial and Ante-Bellum Periods.

FLORIDA

Kingsley Plantation, Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, Fort George Island

Archeological investigations at some of the Kingsley slave cabins produced artifacts that give us a glimpse into daily life at this slave community. Clay pipes, handmade clay marbles, a harmonica, toothbrush, brass bell, and a glass inkwell offer intriguing traces of the occupants' personal lives. In spite of their small size, these artifacts have been the only clues to the daily activities of the inhabitants of the slave quarters at Kingsley Plantation. Explore the slave quarters, barn, waterfront, plantation house, kitchen house, and interpretive garden.

GEORGIA

Stafford and Rayfield Plantations, Cumberland Island National Seashore, Cumberland Island

African Americans lived in the cabins on the Stafford and Rayfield plantations between the mid-1820s and 1865, and were the labor force that produced the famous "sea island" cotton renowned worldwide for its quality. After the Civil War only a few standing cabins, memories, and archeological remains were left of slave life on the plantation. Also visit the Mainland Museum Building to see artifacts highlighting the lives of African Americans during the 19th and 20th century.

KANSAS

Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, Topeka

In the years between the 1860s and 1926, the neighborhood surrounding the Monroe Elementary School in Topeka was an active, working-class African American community. In 1954, key events involving students at the school helped to overturn the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling of 1896, which had permitted public school segregation. Archeology of the neighborhood reveals more about who lived in the neighborhood during this period of struggle for civil rights.

LOUISIANA

Magnolia Plantation, Cane River Creole National Park, Natchitoches

By 1860 the Lecomtes were the largest slaveholders in Natchitoches Parish. Many descendants of Magnolia's workers still live in the immediate area. In the aftermath of the Civil War, fraternal organizations and freedmen's churches helped hold the African American community together. One African Methodist Episcopal church, St. James, stood on Magnolia itself until the 1960s, and the congregation performed burials just across the river at St. Andrew's Baptist Church.

Gabe Nargot's Cabin, Cane River Creole National Park, Natchitoches

The cultivation of indigo, tobacco, and cotton required a large labor force. According to the 1810 census, Jean Pierre Emmanuel enslaved 53 people. In 1860 there were 145 African Americans living at Oakland Plantation in 30 houses. Only 3 of these cabins are still standing. One of them is the cabin of Gabe Nargot.

MARYLAND

Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum, Catonsville

Banneker lived his whole life in the tiny, black community of Oella, Maryland. His feats were remarkable for any time and any person: he taught himself mathematics and astronomy, surveyed in 1791 the Federal Territory (now known as Washington, D.C.), and published six almanacs. Banneker also exchanged letters with then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson concerning the equality of men and the "injustice of the slave state." His homestead is now the center of the Park and Museum.

Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, St. Leonard

Sukeek was brought to the United States in the early 1800s. Archeologists working with some of her descendants - who continue to live in southern Maryland - uncovered evidence for the compelling story of her life. Visit Sukeek's Cabin to learn about her and her family's stories. Explore the park to learn more about African Americans who used to live on the property.

Historic Annapolis, Annapolis

Learn about the presence of African Americans at Maryland's second state capital by following a walking tour across the city. Visit the Carroll House, where the Carroll family owned more than 1,000 enslaved Africans and African Americans over the duration of their ownership of the property. Find out about over a century of African American history at the Maynard-Burgess House, which was continually owned by two interrelated black families from about 1850-1980. The house and its residents bore witness to changes in African American lives that ran from slavery, to the Civil Rights movement, to the present day. Also visit the James Brice House, where archeologists uncovered caches of mysterious objects believed to be indicative of folk beliefs, called Hoodoo.

Northampton Slave Quarters Archaeological Park, Lake Arbor

For nearly three centuries Northampton was a tobacco plantation that also produced other crops. Detailed information about the life of one woman, Elizabeth Hawkins, was obtained from descendants who live in the area and are active participants in the research and excavations relating to this site. Northampton is located at the Northlake residential development in a community park. Interpretive signage guides visitors on a tour of this unique place.

NEW YORK

African Burial Ground and African Burial Ground National Monument, Manhattan

In 1991, the remains of more than 400 Africans living in New York City during the 17th and 18th centuries were discovered during construction of the Foley Square Project federal building. Archeologists recovered human remains and cultural information from the graves, sparking intense scrutiny and debate in the process. Visitors can today see a number of memorials. An interpretive center is underway.

Seneca Village, Manhattan

In the early 1800s, the landscape of what is now Central Park West was largely wasteland and open fields. Several prominent African American clergymen and entrepreneurs bought land in the 1820s to build homes and establish a community. Over time, this area on the urban frontier became a culturally-diverse place of freedmen, Irish, and other groups. Today, above-ground archeology and testing in Central Park enables us to know something about Seneca Village, which was destroyed to make way for the park.

PENNSYLVANIA

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, near Philadelphia

African Americans played an important role over the 112 years of the Hopewell Furnace. Enslaved persons in the 18th century are said to have dug Hopewell's original headrace which turned the water wheel supplying air to fire the furnace. After slavery became illegal, African Americans continued to work at Hopewell Furnace as paid employees. Today, over 220 years after the furnace was built, visitors can still see remnants of the east headrace near the ironmaster's mansion.

James Dexter Site, Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia

James Dexter, a free African American, lived in a small house that fronted on North Fifth Street from about 1790 until 1798. He spent his early years in bondage and carried the slave name of "Oronoko." A certificate filed with the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in 1787 attests to James Oronoko Dexter's freeman status. Learn more about life at the house by visiting the site, and tour the rest of the park to find out about John Dexter and other African Americans in Philadelphia.

TENNESSEE

The Hermitage, near Nashville

Little written documentation exists about African American life at The Hermitage, home to President Andrew Jackson, but archeological research clues us in to their dwellings and work sites. In 1804 Jackson had enslaved 9 people, by 1829 over 100, and at the time of his death in 1845 approximately 150 lived and worked on the property. They lived in "family units" in small 20 foot square cabins with one floor, one door, one window, a fireplace, and a small loft. The faunal remains of domesticated and wild animals, root cellars, architectural evidence, guns, knives, fishing tools, coins, and smaller items suggest what their lives were like.

VIRGINIA

African American Heritage Park, Alexandria Black History Museum, Alexandria

Archeologists have discovered evidence of a forgotten 19th-century African American cemetery and made the protected site into a focal point for a park. Interpretive sculpture by Jerome Meadows and a gazebo add to the park's design.

Alexandria Archaeology Museum, Alexandria

Learn about the African American communities of Alexandria through exhibits and artifacts on display.

Booker T. Washington National Monument, Hardy

Booker T. Washington was born into slavery on a tobacco farm. Today, this place commemorates his contributions to the quest by African Americans for education and equality and the post-war struggle over political participation. Walk the trails of the park to experience reconstructed buildings of the plantation. Archeologists have uncovered a number of potential cabins of enslaved persons.

Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, Richmond

This site within Jackson Ward celebrates the achievements of America's first female African American bank president, who was a prominent figure within numerous civil rights organizations. By 1920, the residents of the ward were increasingly professional, home-owning African Americans who developed their own social infrastructure including churches and benevolent societies engaged in the economic and social concerns of the period. Artifacts from archeological investigations tell these stories of devotion, of play, and personal adornment, attesting to the concerns and joys shared by its inhabitants as they went about the work of their lives and their community.

Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg

During the 18th century, half of Williamsburg's population was black. The lives of the both enslaved and free persons in this Virginia capital are presented in reenactments and programs by Colonial Williamsburg's Department of African-American Interpretation and Presentations, founded in 1988.

The Robinson House: A Portrait of African American Heritage, Manassas National Battlefield, Manassas

The Robinson House was inhabited by free African Americans during the Civil War. James Robinson, a black man born free, turned the property into one of the wealthiest farms in the Manassas area with the help of his family. Through excavation archeologists learned about how the choices the Robinsons made as consumers may have also expressed their cultural identity. Ceramic sherds and broken glass, for example, provide clues to the family's economic strategies and social aspirations by indicating to archeologists the things they bought and used.

Monticello, near Lynchburg

Archeology at Thomas Jefferson's historic home has included a general survey of the property as well as a detailed investigation of Monticello's slave quarters, known as Mulberry Row. Ongoing excavations have recovered further evidence of the structures and lives of the approximately 90 people who worked as enslaved laborers on Jefferson's property.

  • Artifact from the Kingsley Plantation, part of Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. (National Park Service)
  • Cabins of persons enslaved on plantations near Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. (National Park Service)
  • Archeologists at work on a fireplace at Cumberland Island National Seashore. (National Park Service)
  • A white glass jar for mentholatum found at Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. (National Park Service)
  • Head of a bone toothbrush found at Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. (National Park Service)
  • Cabin of an enslaved family. (National Park Service)
  • Portrait engraving of Benjamin Banneker. (Library of Congress)
  • Site of Sukeek's Cabin. (Teresa Moyer)
  • The Maynard-Burgess House as it looks today. (University of Maryland)
  • The Brice House in Annapolis as it looked in 1865. (Maryland State Archives)
  • Northampton Slave Quarters Archaeological Park. (National Park Service)
  • The African Burial Ground at Foley Square. (Barbara Little)
  • This 1856 map shows the layout of Seneca Village. (Historical Society of New-York)
  • Artist's rendition of the Hopewell industrial site. (National Park Service)
  • Archeologist excavates at the James Dexter site. (National Park Service)
  • Bottle found at the James Dexter site. (National Park Service)
  • Artifacts found at the homes of enslaved persons at the Hermitage. (The Hermitage)
  • Excavation at the Triplex site. (The Hermitage)
  • A red plate with yellow slipware decoration found in Alexandria.(Alexandria Archaeology)
  • Archeology at Booker T. Washington National Monument. (National Park Service)
  • Portrait of Maggie L. Walker. (National Park Service)
  • Jackson Ward, part of Maggie L. Walker NHS. (National Park Service)
  • The Robinson House. (National Park Service)
  • Descendants of James Robinson talk with archeologists. (National Park Service)

TSM/MJB