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New Legislation Seeks to Protect the U.S.’ Historic Black Cemeteries

Now headed to the House, a bill passed by the Senate paves the way for the creation of the African American Burial Grounds Network

The African Burial Ground National Monument in Manhattan commemorates the earliest and largest known black burial site discovered in the United States. More than 15,000 free and enslaved Africans who lived and worked in colonial New York were buried here between the mid-1630s and 1795. (National Park Service)
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Over the centuries, countless black burial sites across the United States have been neglected or lost due to systemic racism and Jim Crow–era laws restricting property ownership. Now, reports Adam Parker for the Post and Courier, new legislation seeks to better protect historic black cemeteries, paving the way for the creation of a sweeping African American Burial Grounds Network.

The U.S. Senate unanimously passed the bill, which centers on at-risk African American cemeteries in South Carolina, last week. Though the measure mainly addresses the Southern state, it also has national implications, authorizing the Department of the Interior to conduct a comprehensive study of black burial grounds across the country. This study would lay the groundwork for the network, allowing experts to coordinate research efforts, create a nationwide database of black cemeteries and receive grant funding.

Representatives Alma Adams and Donald McEachin first introduced a House bill detailing the network, which would operate under the auspices of the National Park Service (NPS), in February 2019, reported Caitlin Byrd for the Post and Courier at the time. Senators Sherrod Brown and Lamar Alexander introduced the bill in the Senate last year. The proposed legislation will now head to the House for a vote, reports WKBN.

“We know that for too long in too many parts of our country, black families were blocked from burying their loved ones in white cemeteries,” said Brown to his fellow senators on December 20, per WKBN. “These men and women were freed slaves, civil rights champions, veterans, mothers, fathers, workers in communities. We need to act now before these sites are lost to the ravages of time or development.”

According to the Post and Courier, the network, if created, would be modeled after two similar NPS projects: We Shall Overcome: Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement and the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program. The initiative would provide grant opportunities and technical assistance to local communities as they work to recover and preserve historic African American burial grounds before they are lost to time, decay or new development, reports WKBN.

The push for federal protection of African American burial sites took on new urgency this year as protests against entrenched racism and police brutality swept the country. As public awareness about the plight of historic black cemeteries spreads, many communities are starting to reckon with the neglected or abandoned black cemeteries in their own backyards.

In the Tampa Bay area, researchers with the Florida Public Archaeology Network and the Tampa Bay Times have located and identified at least four historically black cemeteries in the region, including one buried beneath a parking lot. Officials in Mobile, Alabama, are also preparing to search for the graves of formerly enslaved people and descendants of survivors of the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to leave Africa for the U.S., reports John Sharp for AL.com. Experts rediscovered the remains of the ship along the Mobile River last year, as Allison Keyes reported for Smithsonian magazine at the time.

In October, an archaeological team in Oklahoma unearthed a mass grave thought to hold the remains of victims of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre. Just under 100 years ago, a white mob aided by the local police force attacked and destroyed the prosperous Greenwood neighborhood, killing an estimated 300 black Tulsans. But the graves of the massacre victims went unmarked and had been lost to time until now.

As the Economist reported in November, many Southern cities across the country are also reconciling campaigns for new development with the desire to preserve cultural heritage. In Charleston, South Carolina, notes the Post and Courier, a recent construction boom is threatening the scores of burial grounds scattered across the historic city.

Last November, more than 60 organizations dedicated to cultural heritage and preservation signed a letter of support for the proposed network.

“Cemeteries are places of tribute and memory, connecting communities with their past,” the organizations wrote. “Unfortunately, many African-American burial grounds from both before and after the Civil War are in a state of disarray or inaccessibility.”

The letter continues, “By creating a national network, the African-American Burial Grounds Network Act would help to re-discover the existence of burial grounds ahead of commercial development, helping to avoid disturbances which create distress and heartache in communities. Preserving and protecting these sacred sites, and the stories they tell, is an integral part of our American heritage.”

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