AFRICAN AMERICAN CEMETERIES : NATIONAL CHALLENGES

Sammons family cemetery Charlottesville, VA. / photo: E.L. Fly
Sammons family cemetery Charlottesville, VA. / photo: E.L. Fly

For decades there has been concern about the desecration and loss of African American cemeteries and burial sites. A National Burial Database of Enslaved Americans is being created. It seems that the frequency and disturbing nature of reports has increased. In 2016 the New York Times published an article by Sandra A. Arnold entitled “Why Slave Graves Matter”. A 2016 National Olmsted Scholar, Azzurra Cox, devoted her research year to the thirty two acre Greenwood Cemetery in the St. Louis, Missouri area. San Antonio’s ABC affiliate KSAT 12 News aired a story on lost and devastated cemeteries in mid-February of this year. A few days later the Washington Post published an article regarding a black cemetery about to be covered by a parking lot. A few days ago National Public Radio (NPR) aired a story about the reluctance to acknowledge slave graves discovered on a construction site at the University of Georgia.

African American Cemetery, Medina County, TX / photo: E.L. Fly
African American Cemetery, Medina County, TX / photo: E.L. Fly

These cases raise so many questions, emotions, concerns, lessons and opportunities that affect a wide cross section of America, not simply African Americans. Too often these resources are acknowledged and interpreted strictly in terms of individual disciplines of archaeology, anthropology, or genealogy.  As cultural landscapes they demand interdisciplinary attention that includes community planners, landscape architects, historic preservation specialists, craft masters and artists.

Pre-twentieth century cemeteries were not merely self contained and disconnected places to hold human remains. Along with churches and schools, burial grounds were sacred, and physical keystones, in the formation and sustained evolution of communities. Many 19th century rural black cemeteries were intentionally placed on sites characterized by natural beauty and visual power.  Racial segregation policies forced Black graveyards to be placed on remote property donated by private citizens. This was also a conscious practice for defensive site planning and selection.

 

Griffin Family Cemetery, San Antonio, TX / photo: E.L. Fly
Griffin Family Cemetery, San Antonio, TX / photo: E.L. Fly

African American resources have been repeatedly exposed to extreme trials of double jeopardy. They were created against the odds of active 18th, 19th and 20th century racial discrimination policies, laws and practices.  Twenty first century policy makers, planners, designers and developers too often assume that there is limited harm in moving or obliterating sacred burial grounds because there is no written history or obvious presence of descendants. Most early black settlements and cemeteries were planned and created from cultural and organic concepts and traditions. The intrinsic history and culture of the original burial place cannot be instantly, or artificially, transferred to a new location. Moving remains from their original resting place without leaving a physical representation of their existence and documenting the cultural history shows combinations of indifference, lack of knowledge and denial of civic responsibility.  When the sites are completely eradicated and hidden, opportunities for closure are squandered and all Americans lose authentic physical history and intellectual growth.

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