Burial Ground Secrets Unfold

Carter Clinton

Howard research has ramifications for the entire African diaspora.

An Important Partnership

Since Howard’s relationship with the African Burial Ground began, researchers have discovered a number of insights, such as the approximate age of the inhabitants at death, whether they were likely born in Africa or the U.S. and what the life expectancy appeared to be at the time.

“Reconstructing this data gives us a real insight into what life was like back then,” said Fatimah L.C. Jackson, Ph.D., director of the Cobb Research Laboratory. “We can speak authoritatively, and we can connect some of their struggles to the struggles we have today.”

The mission of the Cobb Research Laboratory has always been to explore the biological history of African Americans, said Jackson. Researchers do that through a variety of disciplinary approaches, including studying the skeletal biology and molecular genetics of the population, as well as the clinical evidence that they gather.

“What we’re trying to do is reconstruct 400 years of African American biological history. The collection that we have at the Cobb Research Lab makes it the premier skeletal biology and dental biology setting for researchers who study historic African populations,” Jackson added.

Delving Into the Research Current African Burial Ground research is being led by Carter Clinton, a doctoral candidate and assistant curator of the Cobb Research Laboratory. He is also an Ernest E. Just-Percy L. Julian Graduate Research Assistantship recipient. The assistantship is designed to give doctoral students an opportunity to gain experience in their respective fields, prepare them for future research and provide an opportunity to secure supplemental financial assistance through grant funding or other external sources.

Ironically, Clinton recalls visiting the burial ground in elementary school on a class trip. Little did he know then that he would conduct research on the remains for his dissertation, “Detection and Identification of Metals Found in 17th and 18th Century New York African Burial Ground Grave Soil Samples.” But when he arrived at Howard, “I absolutely jumped at the opportunity to work with these samples,” he said.

Clinton started his research in summer 2015, and it encompasses three main areas:

The first part looks at the soil chemistry to find out the elemental composition and see what trace metals might be present. One notable finding was that the soil had elevated levels of the mineral strontium. “The interesting thing with that is when you see these elevated levels of strontium in human remains it’s an indicator of a vegetative diet,” Clinton said. Howard researchers also discovered high levels of arsenic, zinc and copper in the soil, which is indicative of the factories that were dumping waste in the area, Clinton added.

The second part of the research looks for bacterial DNA in the soil samples. By extracting the DNA from the soil samples, researchers have discovered bacteria that’s associated with certain infectious diseases. This provides insight into the diseases that the people lived with and in some cases died of. “Some of our samples had Paratyphi and that’s responsible for typhoid fever,” Clinton said. “We’re also finding pneumonia strains.”

The third part of the research looks to put into perspective how the trace metals and bacterial pathogens show up in and around the burial ground. “This gives us an idea of who suffered from what and how widespread it was,” Clinton said.

A desire to get research experience led Babajide Owosela, a senior with a double major in biology and sports medicine to the Cobb Research Laboratory. For the last two years, he’s assisted Clinton through such tasks as storing and categorizing the soil samples and helping to extract the bacterial DNA. Owosela’s experience is a testament to Howard’s role in training the next generation of researchers. “I had no research experience and no clue how anything was done,” he said. “Now, I consider myself a scientist who can move the boundaries of science forward.” Indeed, Jackson has an ‘Each One Teach One’ philosophy in which graduate students serve as project managers and mentor undergraduate students in the lab. “The undergraduates get a lot of hands-on experience in the lab, working with the graduate students and assisting them in the analyses of their area of study,” Jackson said.

Understanding the Ramifications

Though Clinton’s research does not directly look at human DNA from the remains, it allows researchers to develop more thorough identities of those Africans and African Americans who lived in what is now New York during that time. “As African Americans, we have such a disconnected past largely because of the transatlantic slave trade,” said Clinton. “Any pieces of that history that we can connect are important.”

This research can also serve as a bridge to future research that does encompass human DNA and could one day have major health ramifications. “If we have human DNA from this population, we’d be able to see genetic variance or some evolutionary processes for specific diseases that African Americans suffer from today,” Clinton explained. “Then, making that connection, we could see what changes occurred, such as mutations that showed up and other things to better assess current health disparities.”

Precision medicine seeks to come up with a tailor-made treatment for disease based on genetics. But without historical data on those of African descent, black people all over the globe are left behind. “If African Americans are not represented, how can you make a medicine for an African American who comes into your office with A, B, C symptoms?” said Clinton. Working to end such disparities is one of his passions.

Owosela is also excited about the ramifications that research like this can have on the health of people of color now and in the future. “To have more data like that, it means that black people around the world will have better healthcare,” said Owosela. “Fewer people will die and more people can have healthier, higher quality lives.”

Each year, a group of freshmen at Howard visits the ABG and gets a first-hand look at the enormity of Howard’s research and the sanctity of the remains.

“This research is so important because one of our main goals is to increase the representation of African American data,” said Owosela. “These are my people. I have history with them.”

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