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House Bill 1099: Historic African American Cemeteries Preservation Study and Fund (Updated 5/16/21)

House Bill 1099 was filed in the 2021 session of the Maryland General Assembly by Delegate Al Carr of Montgomery County. Building on the prior efforts of Delegate Pam Queen, the bill was intended to assist Marylanders who are concerned about African American burial sites in their communities.
HB 1099 directed two actions:

  1. To study issues facing historic Black cemeteries, including conditions and needs, how other jurisdictions are protecting and managing these fragile historic resources, and how any proposed initiative would be funded. This study would be conducted in one year by appropriate organizations, some named and others generally described.
  2. To create a fund that will provide grants to qualified applicants. Individuals and organizations would be eligible to apply to “identify, preserve, restore, protect, maintain, or commemorate graves, monuments, or markers at historic African American cemeteries.”

As with most everything in life and law, the “devil is in the details.” The bill started the General Assembly process with a hearing before the House Appropriations Committee on February 24. It was conducted virtually via Zoom. Sign-ups to submit brief written or two minutes of oral testimony were required in advance; everyone could watch via the General Assembly link. Following an introduction by Del. Carr, witnesses testifying in favor of this legislation were Elly Cowan of Preservation Maryland (who covered policy, importance of the study, how proposal differed from current African American Heritage Grants), then Eileen McGuckian for the Coalition to Protect MD Burial Sites (who noted state-wide need and support, how this will assist ALL African American cemeteries, and what other states are doing in this regard). Elinor Thompson, activist from Anne Arundel County and member of Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture, described her experiences, as did Reginald Bishop, caretaker of multiple cemeteries in Harford County and a Coalition board member. Other witnesses who testified were organized by a Montgomery County group that has long sought justice for a Bethesda cemetery that was removed and paved over in the 1950s for development. These speakers requested amendments to HB 1099 that would have drastically altered the bill. Neither legislators nor bill proponents found the amendments workable. These specific demands hurt the chances for assistance to African American cemeteries this year, and the bill never advanced for a vote in the 2021 session.

Knowing how important it is to document specific issues and situations related to Maryland cemeteries, and particularly African American sites, the intent of HB 1099 will continue to be pursued. Maryland’s historically large Black population is evidenced in its proportion of cemeteries, but it is over-represented in the numbers of abandoned and unmaintained sites today. This fact must be addressed with solutions.

Fortunately, the study portion of the bill was salvaged by budgetary action of the Appropriations Committee. The Joint Chairmen’s Report – Operating Budget, April 2021 requests that the Maryland Dept. of Planning and Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture provide a report by May 2022 that will identify issues and provide valuable data to determine the need for financial or other assistance. Stakeholder participation and public comment will be encouraged. You can read the full description at http://dls.maryland.gov/pubs/prod/RecurRpt/2021_Joint_Chairmens_Report.pdf (pages 37-38).

Beginning this summer, Maryland Historical Trust—working with the Office of the Attorney General—will be conducting background research regarding what types of cemetery preservation activities can and cannot be accomplished under current law and regulation. MHT will also be collecting information on the types of cemetery identification, preservation, and commemoration programs that exist in other states, and will be collecting data from local Maryland governments regarding cemetery identification and protection activities. The results of this background research will then be shared with stakeholders as development of the report proceeds.

The Coalition remains committed and available to work with public and private entities toward a good result. Please direct any questions, descriptions of specific Maryland cemetery situations and issues, ideas, and thoughts to coalitionpmbs@gmail.com.

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