Date of Degree
H. Arthur Bankoff
Diana Z. Wall
kongo, african descended spiritual practices, underground railroad, racial formation, slavery, emancipation
This dissertation aims to provide evidence to support the hypothesis that the artifact assemblage found in 1998 under the garret room floor in the attic of the Lott Farmstead is an extension of Kongo-descended cultural practices. This connection is shown by the presence of several artifacts that taken together, invoke a Kongo Cosmogram called the diKenga, alongside artifacts arranged in what is believed to be a Kongo N’Kisi, or spiritual container, that also originates in Kongo ideology. The ceramic found in the kitchen house with an incised X indicates a reverence to this diKenga symbol. Similar symbols have been found on ceramics and other items both in the present-day areas of Central Africa where the Kongo Kingdom (Fig. 2) held influence during the majority of the Atlantic Passage. These same symbols are also found all over the New World in different contexts.
Additionally, there is a rather extensive collection of items that were discovered under the floorboards in a small attic room over the lean-to kitchen structure on the east side of the main house. The way that the items were laid out indicates that at least several items in the assemblage were placed purposely in their last known location. Part of this assemblage was a diKenga symbol made out of one whole corncob and one that was broken into two pieces to form the two vertices of an ‘X’. Many of the items in this assemblage are similar to items that would be placed into a N’Kisi in Western Africa and are also found at various places around the the Eastern United States where African-descended individuals were present.
The items found in the cache (Fig. 29) included a hand stitched sachet of soil. Soil, especially soil from cemetery or burial contexts holds powerful meaning in Kongo spiritual practices and is an essential component to many Haitian Voodoo ceremonies. Additionally, small white pearlware fragments were found. In Kongo cosmology, the color white is believed to symbolize the world of the dead, and the color white is very important in rituals, as well. White items are also found in most of the spiritual caches discovered in the New World. There were two pieces of lantern glass from two separate globes; these fragments could have functioned as something shiny to lure the spirit to the cache and activate it. Additionally, two nails were found. It is believed by Leone (2005) that nails at times were used as protection from whipping (Leone 2005:227), but the instances of nails being discovered, as researched by Leone (2005) were from contexts buried in the ground (Leone 2005:227). Iron is also a very important Kongo ritualistic item (MacGaffey 1986). Other items included in the cache were a sheep/goat pelvis bone (Fig. 40), which are often found as parts of spiritual caches, as well as an oyster shell and a hand-stitched baby shoe. While the relevance of bones in a cache are yet unknown (Leone 2005:226), shells are known to be symbols of cyclical life and prosperity in the Kongo mindset (MacGaffey 1986:117), and serve as a reminder that life is in constant motion.
The entire artifact catalog from the Lott House assemblage was reevaluated for possible signs of African-descended spiritual practices. A few items were singled out, including the presence of both a blue and clear bead. The presence of beads, especially blue and beads in African-descended contexts is well documented. All in all, this research connects the Lott Farmstead to a growing list of places in the United States where evidence of African spiritual practices has been discovered.
There is a possibility that the Lott Farmstead was a stopover for the Underground Railroad. This is based on several factors. One, there is corroboration of oral histories in different branches of the Lott family that fleeing captives were harbored in the home, including in the area over the kitchen, where there is a hidden stairwell in the closet of the lean-to kitchen leading to the former slave quarters. Secondly, some of the architecture of the home is peculiar in that there are some false walls and areas, such as the garret room, that have been hidden from view. Thirdly, much of the Underground Railroad traffic was in the form of boats. The Lott Farmstead is in close proximity to the water and there was constant boat traffic all around the area, including many free black sailors, oystermen and longshoremen. It is possible that this spiritual cache was created by escaping slaves, perhaps as a protective measure against being apprehended.
The Lott Farmstead has a great deal of importance to the history of the City of New York and the region at large, not just as the story of a progressive pioneering Dutch family, but also as a story of race relations in New York City. There are many misconceptions about the magnitude of slavery in the north and its importance to the local and global economies, and the farmstead can help answer many of these questions, especially as the Lott family kept slaves over a very long period starting in the early eighteenth century. Furthermore, the Lott House Site will be the only place that one can see slave quarters in their original contexts within the City of New York, and the fact that individuals, under the oppression of slavery were carrying out rituals that are extensions of the Kongo Culture is both extraordinary and rare.
Watson, Marcus Alan, "Kongo to Kings County" (2016). CUNY Academic Works.