News Archive

Researching the Lives of Slaves

April 23, 2018

Carter ClintonIn the 1690s through the 1790s, more than 15,000 free and enslaved Africans found their final resting place at a burial ground in what is today lower Manhattan. Their graves, and lives, were forgotten until 1991, when the cemetery was rediscovered. In 2006 President George W. Bush designated the site as the African Burial Ground National Monument, obligating federal agencies to preserve the site’s scientific value to gain a better understanding and “honor the culture and vital contributions of generations of Africans and Americans of African descent” to the United States.

Sigma Xi member and Howard University doctoral candidate Carter Clinton is investigating the university’s collection of 59 cadaver-associated grave soil samples, each from a different burial. His project has three sections: bacterial DNA analysis and elemental analysis of soil samples as well as geospatial analysis.

“The combination of these analyses gives us a snapshot into the lives of this historic population—their diets, cultural practices, possible causes of death, and a look at their surrounding environment,” Clinton said. “I’m hoping to learn more about these early African Americans and the underdocumented presence of enslavement in post-colonial New York.”

Sigma Xi’s Grants-in-Aid of Research program provided Clinton with the first grant of his research career to support this project. He used the $1,000 award to buy DNA kits to extract bacterial DNA from each burial sample to help identify human-associated microbiome bacteria, along with the possible disease pathogens that may have been responsible for deaths in this historic community.

“[Receiving this grant] means there is an organization out there who took the time to consider my ideas and not only found them interesting but valuable enough to fund in order for these ideas to become a concrete project,” Clinton said.

Clinton presented this research at Sigma Xi’s 2017 Student Research Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was named the Graduate Division’s top presenter in anthropology.

The project’s principal investigator, Fatimah Jackson of Howard University, is also a Sigma Xi member and past Sigma Xi grant recipient.

“I believe that Sigma Xi’s support for Carter is an essential and major boost for his research career,” she said. “Carter has the background, personality, and tenacity to successfully take on and complete this research.”

Photo caption: 

Howard University doctoral candidate Carter Clinton received a grant from Sigma Xi to investigate the African Burial Ground in New York City.