David Anderson, FORBES Contributor
When new construction projects break ground across the United States, they regularly encounter archaeological materials. Those materials can represent the last surviving trace of the lives lived by the people who made them; and all too often, those materials turn out to be from cemeteries and burial grounds used by segregated and enslaved African American communities. These cemeteries typically went undocumented on local and state government maps and graves were often only marked ephemerally, thus making these spaces all but invisible in the present day.
In just the past year, construction projects and archaeological surveys have encountered numerous examples of undocumented African American burial grounds across the country. Archaeological testing encountered the remains of a 19th century African American burial ground in Philadelphia; construction crews in Fort Bend County, Texas, discovered nearly 100 unmarked graves of African American prison inmates believed to have been forced to work in sugar fields long after emancipation was declared; and, archaeologists working for the Maryland Department of Transportation uncovered a previously unknown slave cemetery in Crownsville, Maryland.
These are just a handful of examples of the many times in which the lives and eternal resting places of African Americans were “lost” to written history. The stories of their lives, however, have not been lost for good. With dedicated effort, archaeological and archival research can help to reclaim the past and fill in the gaps left in our history books.
Today new legislation was proposed in Congress that could bring some protection to these burial grounds and potentially lay the foundation to reclaim the missing pieces of our nation’s past. Congressman A. Donald McEachin, representing Virginia’s Fourth District, and Congresswoman Alma Adams, representing North Carolina’s Twelfth District, introduced legislation that would amend title 54 of the United States Code in order to establish the African American Burial Grounds Network as part of the National Park Service.
If the bill should pass, the network would create a nationwide database of historic African American burial grounds, provide technical assistance to record and evaluate these spaces, establish educational materials for local community members, and make grants available for further research at sites within the network. Through these measures the bill is intended to “help communities identify and record burial grounds and preserve local history while better informing development decisions and community planning.”
The legislation was developed in association with the Society for Historical Archaeology and has received widespread support from historic preservation and cultural resource organizations, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Coalition for American Heritage, and the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.
Ultimately, participation in this bill would be voluntary and graveyards will only be registered with the consent of the property owners. As result, the African American Burial Grounds Network will highlight and raise awareness of at-risk cultural heritage, but it may not be able to protect these spaces from further damage. While we wait to learn the fate of the bill, readers interested in learning what they can do to help protect unmarked cemeteries can check out The Society for Historical Archaeology’s Abandoned Burial Grounds resource page which presents information about how to identify burial grounds and the State laws that govern them. The preservation of the nation’s past is in our hands.