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Warren Perry Biography - Would Not Salute Flag, Archeological Digs Uncover Controversy, Began Work on ABG Project

african university york connecticut

1942(?)–

Archeologist, educator

When many think of slavery, most think of the South. But slavery existed in the North as well. Dr. Warren Perry, an archeologist and associate professor at Central Connecticut State University, has been digging in various burial grounds throughout New York and Connecticut, uncovering information that may change people's perceptions about slavery. His participation with New York City's African Burial Ground Project has shed light on a past that was almost forgotten.

Warren R. Perry has always been one who wanted to shed light on the injustices that have been perpetuated against both Africans and African Americans. His grandfather, Christopher Perry, was the founder of the Philadelphia Tribune, the first black newspaper in Philadelphia. Perry did not have much patience for the educational system in the Bronx, where he grew up. Though his mother tried to instill in him the importance of an education, Perry did not want to learn any more about the great contributions of white people. In his early teenage years, Perry was often on the wrong side of the law. He had married and had two sons before the age of 18. His wife was a heroin addict who committed murder and ended up in prison. His children were placed in foster care, and despite being uplifted by fiery orator Malcolm X, he chose to join the Army.

Would Not Salute Flag

Though in the Army, Perry showed contempt to the institution while stationed in Germany. He chose not to salute the flag, a daily requirement in the Army. He told Tom Gidwitz, who posted his article on his official Web site, "I don't see any black folks in any position [of power], not only in this country, but in this military." Perry found himself in trouble with his superiors. His punishment, however, was sessions with a psychiatrist. He was honorably discharged, and while returning to the United States by ship, he threw his uniform and all of his military gear into the ocean.

Back in New York City, Perry was able to regain custody of his children and enrolled at New York University, using the G. I. Bill to pay for his schooling. Fascinated with uncovering truths, he was drawn to anthropology. Perry told Gina Radasci of Central Connecticut State University's Courier, "My first anthropology field course had a wonderful mixture of physical and intellectual labor. I love anthropology because it is fantastic to recognize the significance of everyday objects for everyday people, and to see what version and vision has been left behind, and to tell the stories that have not been told." He received his bachelor of arts in anthropology, and then his masters from Hunter College. Perry later earned a Ph.D. from the Graduate School and University Center, City University of New York, in 1996.

Perry was thankful for the lessons he learned from his professors, mostly white, but realized their views were myopic. He felt the African-American community needed its own set of scholars who could unearth evidence of black people's contributions to U.S. history from a New England perspective. He sought to be the one to fill this void. His first foray was his participation in an excavation of a 19th century community on Staten Island where a number of freed blacks had lived. The group unearthed a number of artifacts that helped to confirm the contributions of blacks in New York.

Archeological Digs Uncover Controversy

Perry was also interested in learning about African history. He wanted to learn from the indigenous people in southern Africa rather than the records created by the settlers, however. He gained permission from Swaziland's government to bring a group of students to do field studies in hopes of uncovering truths that had been forgotten or hidden. While there, Perry instructed his students to hire native Swazis as advisors, be gracious, and to make their own beds. In doing so, Perry and his students angered the government and cooperation between the two came to a standstill. They were denied access and equipment, and the Swazi archeologists were dismayed by Perry's findings. Perry had unearthed a number of discrepancies that led to him doing a further exploration later that would attempt to discredit the standard findings that informed Swazi history. His 1999 book titled Landscape Transformation and the Archaeology of Impact: Social Disruption and State Formation in Southern Africa divulged his research.

In 1989 the U.S. government had purchased land in lower Manhattan, New York, to build a federal government building. The land was a burial ground and protocol dictated that an archeology firm was contracted to handle the unearthing of the remains. The estimate was between 14,000 to 20,000 African Americans buried in the area. Only 14,000 square feet of land had been excavated. Over 400 bodies had been removed from their resting place. The firm, Historic Conservation and Interpretation, began its work. The government had a one-year timetable and pressured the firm to complete its task swiftly. This angered many in the African-American community. Claims that the remains were being mishandled led to investigations.

Another complaint was that those handling the remains were not sensitive to the plight of the deceased nor did they take into consideration the thoughts of the neighboring African-American community. Also lacking on the site was the presence of African and African-American scholars. Vigils, protests and religious observances soon brought the attention of then-New York City mayor David Dinkins, New York state senator David Patterson, and Illinois congressman Gus Savage. They halted the excavation and closed down the site. Committees were formed and soon Howard University, a historically black university, was given the contract to handle the research over the newly titled African Burial Ground (ABG) Project. They worked with John Milner Associates, an archeology firm. The director of the ABG Project was Michael Blakey, who in turn, hired Perry in 1993 as the associate director and principal archeologist because of his growing expertise in the field of African and African-American archeology.

Began Work on ABG Project

Perry and his team of archeologists and scientists began to research the remains and the land. They learned that many were children under the age of 12, and that most of the adult men and women had died due to extreme wear and tear of their bodies. A number of the bodies were buried with artifacts that resembled those found typically in Africa. This discovery brought to light that slavery did exist in New York, and the slaveholders in the North were no different that those in the South. The remains were then returned to their resting place in 2003 in a tribute that honored the deceased and their contributions. Black leaders and dignitaries from Africa were in attendance. The ABG Project also began plans to design a memorial for the area in 2005.

At a Glance …

Born 1942(?). Married twice; children: three sons. Education: New York University, BA, anthropology; Hunter College, City University New York, MA, anthropology; Graduate School and University Center, City University New York, PhD, anthropology, 1996. Military service: US Army.

Career: Archeological study, participant, Staten Island, NY, 1990s; conducted archeological digs in Swaziland, 1980s, 1997; African Burial Ground Project, New York, NY, associate director, principal archeologist, 1993–; Central Connecticut State University, assistant professor, 1993–.

Addresses: Office—Department of Anthropology, Search £C06-004, Central Connecticut State University, P.O. Box 4010, New Britain, CT 06050-4010.

Perry had also joined the faculty at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) in 1993, where he was an assistant professor of archeology. On a tip from an amateur historian, he and two of his graduate students were led to an area outside of Salem, Connecticut. The team discovered another burial ground that housed slaves. Pouring over state records they learned that slaves had existed in every county in Connecticut. They also learned the area they were excavating was a major plantation that covered thousands of acres in Salem; one of the largest plantations in the United States. They unearthed artifacts that were identical to those used by the Bankongo people of West Africa.

Another excavation in a different part of Connecticut brought to light that despite the slave owners' attempts to squash African spirituality, the slaves continued to observe their religious practices by building cosmograms (items placed in a cross shape to ward off evil spirits) and using minkisis or charms that either provided protection or curses. While many previous archeologists who had done research on slave quarters found what they considered trash, Perry, with his extensive knowledge of African symbols, found otherwise. Objects made with iron or quartz, even simple buttons could be used as minkisis. Odd rock formations to most were actually cairns or graves of slaves. With this new information, archeologists around New England began to see the "trash" in a different light.

Brought to Light Connecticut's Slavery Past

Perry and his team uncovered evidence that indicated that slavery was big business in the North before the Revolutionary War. Part of the "Triangle Trade" of molasses, rum, and slaves made many in New England wealthy. Slaves were brought to ports along the Eastern coastline and then sold to slave owners in the South and the Caribbean at maximum profit. Slaves kept on plantations of the North toiled on the lands to provide food for the West Indies who had devoted their land and slaves to the cultivation of sugar. Sugar, in turn, was made into molasses, which many Northern distilleries used to make rum. Rum, along with weapons, was traded for more slaves. In an article posted on CCSU's Arts & Science Department's webpage, Perry stated,"Like the slaves used in the Southern states, the captive African workers in Connecticut were part of a global agricultural business."

Perry has taken a sabbatical from CCSU in order to continue to focus on numerous projects throughout the Northeast and to co-author a book about his findings. He also completed a report on the progress of the ABG Project. With his findings both on American soil and in Africa, Dr. Warren Perry will continue to offer new insights into the past.

Selected writings

Nonfiction

"Archeology as Community Service: The African Burial Ground Project in New York City," University of South Florida-St. Petersburg, www.stpt.usf.edu/∼jsokolov/burialgr.htm (October 7, 2005).
Landscape Transformation and the Archaeology of Impact: Social Disruption and State Formation in Southern Africa, Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, 1999.

Sources

Periodicals

American Antiquity, October 2000, p. 777.

Hartford Courant (Hartford, CT), September 29, 2002.

Smithsonian, November 2001, p. 30.

On-line

"Archeology as Community Service: The African Burial Ground Project in New York City," University of South Florida-St. Petersburg, www.stpt.usf.edu/∼jsokolov/burialgr.htm (October 7, 2005).

"Chapter One: The Plantation Next Door," (Hartford) Courant, www.courant.com/news/local/northeast/hc-plantation.artsep29,0,599468.story?page=1 (October 11, 2005).

"Finding Lost People: Dr. Warren Perry's Work Featured in Smithsonian," Central Connecticut State University, www.ccsu.edu//Admission/Professors/ArtSci/Perry.htm (October 11, 2005).

"Freeing Captive History: The Hunt for Evidence of Slavery in the North," Tom Gidwitz, www.tomgidwitz.com/main/slavery.htm (October 11, 2005).

"Dr. Warren R. Perry," Anthropology at Central Connecticut University, www.anthropology.ccsu.edu/faculty/perry/perry.htm (October 7, 2005).

"Student News: Publications, Conferences, Other Activities," Ph.D. Program in Anthropology, CUNY Graduate Center, http://web.gc.cuny.edu/Anthropology/news_studpub.html (October 7, 2005).

"Warren Perry," New York's African Burial Ground Project, Africana Studies, Barnard College, www.barnard.edu/africana/events.html (October 7, 2005).

"Warren Perry Digging for Truth," Central Connecticut State University Courier, www.ccsu.edu/Courier/2002/April/warren_perry.htm (October 11, 2005).

"Warren R. Perry," Biography Resource Center, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BIORC (October 7, 2005).

Phyllis J(ean) Perry (1933-) Biography - Personal, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights [next] [back] Marie Fritz Perry Biography - Personal, Addresses, Career, Writings, Work in Progress, Sidelights

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