When Paying Homage to Our History, Remember Our Ancestors’ Stories that the Bones Will Tell

Leon A. Waters

Chairperson of the Louisiana Museum of African American History; Manager of Hidden History Tours, @ www.HiddenHistory.us

In September, 1997, Dr. Michael Blakey, former Howard University archaeology professor, and former director of the African Burial Project from New York City, visited New Orleans. Dr. Blakey was brought to New Orleans to introduce New Orleans public high school teachers and students to the world of archaeology and anthropology by examining the former slave skeletal remains buried in two former slave cemeteries on the site of the Bonnet Carre’ Spillway.

This educational venture was part of the Authentic Voices Project, an African Studies program, chaired by its director, Dr. Clyde Robertson and sponsored by the New Orleans Public School System. This effort was conducted jointly with Malcolm Suber, spokesperson for the African American History Alliance of Louisiana, (now the Louisiana Museum of African American History), the Army Corps of Engineers, and the University of New Orleans.

Teachers and students from Booker T. Washington, Benjamin Franklin, McDonogh #35 and McMain High Schools visited the former cemetery sites of the Kugler and Kenner plantations. Dr. Blakey demonstrated how excavation is conducted, engaged the students in the process, and conducted a public examination of some of the skeletal remains obtained negligently by the Corps of the Engineers. Dr. Blakey would make the comment: “Much of the written record of the former enslaved has been neglected. Archaeology is what is used to uncover this record. The living people are not here, but the remains are.”

What did the bones reveal?

The bones of several African peoples (Kongo, Angola, Mandingo, Senegal, etc.) were examined and explained. Dr. Blakey was able to trace the impact of ‘slave labor’ on the human body. His examination of the deceased bones would reveal damage to the upper and lower body parts traced back to repetitive motion, or mechanical stress in the bones or both. He would explain how the muscle and ligament attachments of the arms and legs illustrated how the enslaved was engaged in lifting and pulling. He pointed out the many examples of muscle tear in the arms and the legs consistent with overwork.

He furthered examined the dental remains. He was able to highlight the kinds of foods the enslaved consumed noting that the enslaved had a very unhealthy and poor diet. This was very evident by his examination that included chemical testing. The enslaved diet consisted of a large reliance of starchy foods, including flour, corn, peas, yams, potatoes, sugar, rum and salted fish. In addition, his examination revealed the presence of scurvy, dental loss, and abscessing which was consistent with a diet in sugars and starches.

Dr. Blakey was able to show how the enslaved from the two cemeteries were worked to death and how malnourished they were. His examination would reveal the depth of the oppression our ancestors suffered. The scholarly work that he introduced to those teachers and students is no longer being shared or taught in our public schools today. Today, Dr. Blakey is the Director of the Institute for Historical Biology at William and Mary College in Virginia.

We, who are citizens in New Orleans, have to find a way to restore such invaluable instruction to today’s schools.

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