Stafford: Anthropologist remembers Springfield colleague

On March 31, Ph.D. Michael Blakey will visit Wittenberg University to tell students about the history he and other archaeologists found written in the bones unearthed, examined and reburied at the historic African American Burial Grounds National Monument in Lower Manhattan.

Earlier this month, the scientific director of the project and the College of William & Mary’s National Endowment for the Humanities Professor took time to reflect on the Springfield man who not only lead the laboratory staff that examined those bones and lives, but understood what lay at the heart of one of the watershed archaeological projects in American history.

Mark E. Mack, a 1979 South High School graduate, died nearly five years ago after a car crash in route from his teaching job at Howard University to his Maryland home. Mack, who was 50, grew up in Springfield as the adoptive son of Betty Lou Garrison and the late Augustus Mack, the man who insisted that their biracial son attend a historically black college.

The father may have harbored doubts about that decision when his son returned from Howard with news that he was taking an interest in archaeology, an undertaking the older Mack equated with grave digging. That was in the early 1980s, just as Mark Mack was becoming Blakey’s “first serious student” in anthropology at Howard.

Impressed by Mack in class, Blakey was given a glimpse of his student’s broader class and depth when the two sat down with W. Montague Cobb, then the pre-eminent African American figure in the field, Blakey’s mentor, and a man Blakey said “exuded wisdom.”

During lunch at an American Anthropology Association conference in D.C., Cobb asked Mack what stories he thought spoke most profoundly to the human capacity for hate and redemption. When Mack cited Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” and Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” Cobb and was impressed.

Blakey said the encountered taught him that while Mack “had a great scientific mind … he was a humanist.”

During an internship, Mack also impressed Smithsonian biological archaeologist Donald J. Ortner, who arranged for a Smithsonian Fellowship that allowed Mack to do graduate studies under another leader in the field, George Armagelos.

Armagelos saw in Mack both the sharp mind and the “appetite for detail” required in a person who examines bones for telltale signs of a life lived.

When the 17th and 18th century site that would become the African Burial Grounds was discovered in Lower Manhattan during construction of a federal building in 1991, Mack was one of the first people Blakey looked to in assembling a staff to handle and examine the remains of the 419 people buried there.

By then teaching anthropology at Howard, Mack had considerable technical skill in archaeological dentition, the art and science of interpreting the conditions of people’s lives by reading the wear patterns and presence of absence of teeth.

As important, Blakey said, “He was someone I could trust as a human being.”

Like Blakey, Mack had a sense of how the field of archaeology had historically been harmful to African Americans by adding a scientific stamp of approval to prevailing social attitudes of black inferiority.

That sense of trust was even more important because at the time of the project, the field of archaeology was in what Blakey describes as a “holy war.”

On one side, he said, were traditionalist archaeologist, whom he said saw themselves as “seeking righteous truth” when they were studying the bones of past peoples and whose allegiance was to that truth and not to the descendants of minority communities.

Blakey said he and Mack were part of another school of thought that saw descendant communities as the “rightful stewards” of discovered remains that should be handled in accordance with the sacred burial practices of the communities.

They also had a sense of the connection between the present day treatment of those communities and the treatment of the remains of their forbears. The issues were crucial to the two men who had entered archaeology in the belief it could be, in Blakey’s words, “retooled to expand our capacity for equality.”

Because of the project’s high profile as an African American site in Manhattan, Blakey said found Mack’s sense of people – his down-to-earth personality – helpful in two ways.

First, Mack “understood the human penchant for mischief better than I did, which made him a good adviser.”

“The snipers were everywhere,” Blakey recalled.

Second, Mack “understood the social and emotional (aspects) of what it meant to sit beside the remains of our ancestors and tell their story,” a capacity Blakey said made Mack a powerful voice in readily communicating the heart and soul behind the bare bones evidence of archaeology.

He was, after all, a humanist.

Just as the project included ceremonies to honor the dead during the reburial of their bones, Blakey and Mack sought to honor those in the burial ground by telling their stories, from an archaeologist’s view, and in doing so, helping to fill in gaps in the historical record of African Americans.

Mack’s impact led the Society of Historical Archaeology to honor him posthumously with its annual Mark E. Mack Community Engagement award given to researches “who exhibit outstanding best practices in their historical archaeology and heritage preservation work” as he did. The award emphasizes best ethical practices.

Mack’s widow, Cindy, was at the inaugural award ceremony to both praise the first award recipients and remind them that they are her late husband’s heirs in giving voice to the lives of largely forgotten people of the past and, in the process, changing lives of today and the future.

One of those lives is the Macks’ daughter, Amirah, who at age 5 proudly announced to her schoolmates her plans to become something none of them had ever heard of before, the very thing her father had been — a professor of biological anthropology.

And that means there may be another Mack in Michael Blakey’s future.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Community News

Uber driver charged in rape of 16-year-old girl
Uber driver charged in rape of 16-year-old girl

An Uber driver in Georgia was arrested Thursday after a 16-year-old girl said she was raped in suburban Atlanta, police said. Abdoulie Jagne, 58, of College Park, was identified as the man police said allegedly raped a girl in the Gwinnett County city of Norcross, Gwinnett police spokeswoman Cpl. Michele Pihera said.  Uber officials said Jagne...
Firefighter dies battling California blaze
Firefighter dies battling California blaze

A California firefighter died Thursday while battling the Thomas Fire in Ventura County, KSWB reported. Cory Iverson, 32, of Escondido died near Fillmore while helping to battle the 10-day-old fire, which has burned more than 249,500 acres and destroyed more than 1,000 structures. Iverson had been with the Cal Fire department since 2009....
Cold with wind chills in teens today
Cold with wind chills in teens today

Cold with a few flurries possible today Wind gusts up to 25 mph this afternoon Slight warm-up into the weekend Rain showers arrive Sunday Today: It will be mostly cloudy and cold to start the day with temperatures in the upper teens and 20s, said Storm Center 7 Meteorologist McCall Vrydaghs. Temperatures will slowly climb through the day with...
Eighth planet found orbiting distant star
Eighth planet found orbiting distant star

An eighth planet has been discovered orbiting a star 2,545 light-years from Earth, NASA announced Thursday. The star, called Kepler-90, is located in the Draco constellation. It is the first known star to have as many planets orbiting it as our solar system does, NASA said. NASA scientists had known about seven planets orbiting Kepler-90. The...
Watch: He’s going to Harvard, and Louisiana student’s reaction is priceless
Watch: He’s going to Harvard, and Louisiana student’s reaction is priceless

It has been quite a week for two Louisiana brothers. Both were accepted into big-name colleges, and separate videos of their reactions have gone viral. On Tuesday, 16-year-old Ayrton Little and his classmates at T.M. Landry College Preparatory waited as he opened his email to see if he had been accepted into Harvard University’s 2019-2020 class...
More Stories