Unnamed slaves will be reburied in caskets made by local artists

— Photo from Lisa Anderson of the New York State Museum

Bringing the past to life: The faces of several of the 14 slaves whose remains were discovered in Colonie have been painstakingly recreated through facial reconstruction. The woman shown here was identified through skeletal analysis as having African ancestry, while DNA testing showed her maternal ancestry to have been Native American, possibly Micmac. Researchers believe she was probably of mixed African-Native American ancestry.



GUILDERLAND — John Hodgson has made a wooden box topped with a sankofa, a traditional African symbol meaning “to return for what was left behind.”

The box will hold the bones of a person he never knew —a slave who lived two or three hundred years ago.

Human bones were discovered in 2005 as workers dug a sewer along Broadway in Colonie. Work stopped, and archeologists were brought in. Soon they had unearthed the bones of  14 people, and those remains were taken to the New York State Museum, in hopes that experts there could learn more about who these individuals were.

Artists and woodworkers are now creating handmade burial containers into which the remains will be placed; they will then lie in state in the burial containers at the Schuyler Mansion in Albany on June 17 and be buried with great ceremony at St. Agnes Cemetery in Menands the following day.

Hodgson, of Guilderland, who has worked with wood since he was 16, says he is “something of a history buff” and was drawn into the project initially because of its connection to the local Revolutionary War general and United States Senator from New York, Philip Schuyler. “It kind of piqued my interest to do something with a connection to a historical figure,” he said.

As he learned more about the project and the lives of the enslaved people whose remains would be buried in the handmade boxes, he came to feel a growing sense of connection to those whose names history has forgotten.

Hodgson is just one of many woodworkers who are helping make the wooden containers that will hold the remains of slaves discovered in unmarked graves on an estate that belonged to the Schuyler family in the 18th and 19th centuries. He made his box out of pine and included on the top a carving done by local woodworker David Mobley, who created it using a computer-programmable machine.

All of the boxes that will be decorated by visual artists are being made for them by members of the Northeastern Woodworkers Association, and that group is also making a number of boxes that will be elaborately woodworked, rather than painted.

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair
A bird in the hand: The Northeastern Woodworkers Association will make one “comfort bird” to place in each burial container. These are turned wooden birds that are meant to give comfort by feeling good in the palm of the hand; the group often makes them for hospice patients. The birds are held by John Heimke, the group’s president.


Using science to explain the past

Lisa Anderson is curator of bioarcheology at the museum. She explained that bioarcheology involves studying teeth and bones in order to learn how people died and also how they lived. Over the last 11 years, she said, the remains of these 14 people have been studied, and, where possible, DNA analysis and facial reconstruction have been done.

Seven of them were infants and children, Anderson said. Seven were adults, with just one of those a man, and the other six, women. All of the adults were identified as having African ancestry, based on skeletal analysis, said Anderson.

DNA testing clarified the maternal ancestry of all of the adults, which was: four were of African descent on their mothers’ side; two of Madagascar descent; and one of Native American descent; DNA couldn’t be used to identify the fathers’ lines, said Anderson. None of the adults were related to one another through their maternal ancestry. Isotope analysis determined that all were born in New York State.

Bioarcheology also reveals details about several of the people, such as that one of the women had “strong arms, along with mild arthritis,” and that the front teeth of another “have small notches in them that may have been made by pulling thread or other material across them repeatedly.”

Slaves are known to have lived at the Flatts from 1682 through the early years of the 1800s, so these people are thought to have lived between about 200 to 300 years ago.

All 14 individuals will be laid to rest on June 18 in the “most beautiful” spot in St. Agnes Cemetery, on Founders’ Hill, said Kelly Grimaldi, who is the historian for the Albany Diocesan Cemeteries. “The view is truly magnificent,” said Grimaldi. “Back in the day, in the 1800s, you could see all the way down to the river, with no [Route] 787 blocking the view.”

The cemetery is donating the land and the carved headstone, which is inscribed on the front, “Here lies the remains of 14 souls known only to God. Enslaved in life, they are slaves no more.”

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair
History in the making: John Hodgson of Guilderland is one of many local woodworkers who donated his time and effort to construct a box to hold the remains of one of 14 unnamed slaves who lived and died in Colonie in about the 18th Century. Hodgson made his box of pine.


Honoring ancestors

All of the woodworkers and artists have been asked to incorporate the sankofa symbol in their designs.


— Photo from Danielle Charlestin
Reaching for home: A woman whose body lies within the outlines of the African continent reaches up for a sankofa bird — which symbolizes homecoming — in Danielle Charlestin’s sketch of the design she plans to paint on the lid of a pine burial container. Around the sides she will paint a large baobob tree, with faces in the trunk, suggesting, she says, the idea of a “family tree.” Family bonds, she says, were often fractured by slavery, and her design is meant to suggest being finally free to reunite with loved ones.


One of the artists who is decorating a box made for her by the Northeastern Woodworkers Association is Danielle Charlestin of Troy, who is also a poet. Charlestin has a master’s degree in Africana Studies from the University at Albany and wanted to connect with her ancestors — not necessarily her own personal forebears, but her ancestral history of slavery. She said that, as a black woman who has studied her history, “Being able to give back to people who didn’t have a chance to speak for themselves or be buried with dignity means a lot to me.”

The design she plans to paint, probably using acrylics, on the box’s lid is of a woman within an outline of the continent of Africa. The woman is shown reaching upward toward the sky and toward a sankofa bird; this bird, seen from the side, with its head stretched around toward its back, is a traditional variation on the sankofa symbol.

She wants to suggest with her drawing, she said, that the woman is returning home. “They didn’t really have a homegoing or a celebration of their lives, so I want it to be like she’s returning home.” For that reason, she will also include in the design a baobob tree, prevalent in Madagascar, which is where it is thought that this particular group of slaves’ ancestors came from.

— Photo from Danielle Charlestin
Artist and poet Danielle Charlestin, who came to Albany for graduate school in Africana Studies, says of the experience of decorating a box for the burial project, “It’s very fulfilling to be able not just to study history, but to be part of it in a way.”


Around the sides of the box, Charlestin plans to paint one large baobob tree, with faces peering out from the trunk. “The literal sense will be like a family tree,” Charlestin said. “Slaves oftentimes were separated from their family and weren’t ever able to see their immediate family again. I wanted to express the idea of going back to family after being disconnected from family during their lifetimes.”

This has been a long time in the making, said Cordell Reaves of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation. There have been efforts to make this reburial happen for years, but it took the right combination of people, agencies, and organizations to finally make it happen, he said. Reaves has been involved for a number of years, he said, in both his official capacity and during his own time, as a volunteer.

One of those who has been central to the project is community member Evelyn Kamili King of Albany, who became interested a number of years ago, then later saw the burial project languishing and decided she needed to do something. She became project manager, and says, “I decided to take all my energy and pursue the burial, because I just think it’s the right thing to do. These people suffered enough; why should they be dug up and forgotten in cardboard boxes? And being that I am of African descent, I want to honor my ancestors.”

Hodgson, the woodworker, reflected, “We don’t know where many of the rest of them are,” referring to slaves. “It’s sort of like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A symbol of all those who suffered at the hands of slavery.”

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