For most, it is only a metaphor, but Carter Clinton is literally digging for answers about how African Americans lived and died during the era of slavery. His research focuses on the New York African Burial Ground in Manhattan, a national historical site that houses the remains of more than 15,000 enslaved and freed African Americans who lived in the area in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1991, a group of explorers excavated the site and retrieved samples of the soil. Soil Secrets shares the story of how Carter Clinton is leading a team of researchers who are studying the samples. They hope to learn how the African Americans buried at the site died, and the conditions surrounding their deaths.

Grave Digging and Dirt

As a fellow African American and New York native, studying the burial site in Manhattan has special significance to Clinton, as it promises to shed light on the experiences of people who lived centuries ago but who shared his home and his heritage. Clinton is a dedicated researcher and a doctoral student in the department of biology at Washington, D.C.'s Howard University. He is also an assistant curator at the W. Montague Cobb Research Lab, which is based at Howard. At the lab, Clinton and his team study soil samples from the African graves and compare them to current-day samples obtained from a soil survey of New York City to determine the historical conditions that affected the lives of the people buried at the site.

Clinton is passionate about his work, and in recognition of its value, he has received numerous awards, honors, and research grants. He is a member of Sigma Xi, the National Research Honor Society, and the Graduate Student Association at Howard University. In the 2017–2018 academic year, the Graduate Student Association named Clinton the Graduate Student of the Year. He received a research grant from Sigma Xi and fellowships from prestigious organizations, including the National Institute of Health and the National Human Genome Research Institute. In 2017, he also received an Explorer’s Grant from National Geographic. When Clinton presented his research on the African burial site at a Sigma Xi conference, his invaluable contributions to the historical record earned him the Top Presenter award.

From Death Comes Life

The recognition Clinton has received for his work reflects the diversity of his interests. He is a graduate student in biology, but his research combines scholarship from archaeology, history, and genetics. One of Clinton’s goals is to use the information he gains from the soil to identify bacteria that may have contributed to the deaths of the African Americans that were buried and to help eliminate disease in the African American population today. Another is to identify genetic variations in minority populations that may affect their health and physical condition.

Clinton has the mindset of a true explorer. By combining scholarship from different fields, he is able to get a fuller picture of a poorly documented area of history. President George W. Bush designated the New York African Burial Ground a national monument in 2006, which recognizes the significance of the site to historical research. By studying the soil samples, Clinton hopes to learn about the conditions that affected the lives of African Americans in New York during the era of slavery. His work also promises to provide insight into the contributions of enslaved people of African descent to this country’s cultural history.

Explorer Profile: Carter Clinton, Biological Anthropologist

Carter Clinton heads a project researching the New York African Burial Ground. This is a place that houses the remains of more than 15,000 enslaved and freed African Americans who lived in Manhattan in the 17th and 18th centuries.

excavate
Verb

to expose by digging.

genetic
Adjective

having to do with genes, inherited characteristics or heredity.

genome
Noun

set of genes, or chromosomes, that hold all the inherited characteristics of an organism.

literally
Adverb

exactly what is said, without exaggeration.

metaphor
Noun

word or phrase used to represent something else, or an understanding of one concept in terms of another concept. 

native
Adjective

indigenous, or from a specific geographic region.

recognition
Noun

acceptance and notice.

sample
Verb

to take and test a small part of something, which represents the entire thing.

significance
Noun

importance.

slavery
Noun

process and condition of owning another human being or being owned by another human being.