In 1999, a group of scientists and educators, led by forensic anthropologist Jihad Muhammad, decided it was time to confront a serious issue within the African American community: Many African Americans do not know or understand their connection to the slavery experience and, lacking this connection, cannot verify their ancestral history. As a result, African American children often suffer from low self-esteem, which in turn affects how they respond to their environment. Muhammad proposed an organization that would apply the principles of biomedical and cultural heritage research to help investigate and trace the footsteps of African American progenitors in America between 1628 and 1888.
The organization was incorporated as the African Scientific Research Institute (ASRI) and launched its first major project: to piece together the past of Jean Baptiste Pointe de Sable, a fur trader of African descent who is now regarded as the founder of Chicago. ASRI chose de Sable because of his importance to American history and because very little was known about the man, his life and the settlement he built on the western shores of Lake Michigan. Using scientific tools such as DNA profiling, Computerized Tomography (CT) scans and laser analysis, ASRI researchers identified de Sable and other individuals of historic significance. Then they used advanced forensic techniques -- facial reconstruction, for example -- to put flesh on skeletal remains. And, finally, they conducted an archaeological investigation to find artifacts, tools and buildings of the era in which de Sable lived. The result was a clear picture of the man: how he lived, where he lived and why he made certain decisions.
Since that initial research, ASRI has employed similar principles to re-create the histories of several other communities founded by African American ancestors. Two of the most notable are New Philadelphia, Ill., recognized as the first incorporated African American town in the United States, and Hopkins Park, Ill., a town founded and governed by a former enslaved man named Matthew Joseph Tetter. All told, ASRI has identified 23 communities in Illinois founded by former slaves. There are numerous others across the nation.
The ultimate goal is not simply to create a record of the past. It's to rebuild these towns and to make the history of African Americans come alive, building by building and face by face. But it doesn't end there. ASRI also seeks to transform these once-marginalized communities into thriving centers of commerce and economic growth, primarily through tourism development. ASRI has dubbed this activity Project Genesis, and is actively working to revitalize five such communities.
As you can imagine, the work of ASRI requires a multidisciplinary team of scientists, historians, anthropologists, archaeologists and educators. Up next, we'll look more closely at some of the activities someone might participate in as an ASRI volunteer.