The Race to Preserve America's Black Cemeteries

America's historic Black cemeteries, which have long fallen victim to displacement, relocation, and outright destruction, could have a new ally in the fight for preservation and recognition.

December 22, 2020, 9:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Cement gravestones reading Father and Mother

The "African American Burial Grounds Network Act" proposes connecting Black cemeteries and burial sites across the country in a formal network and providing grant funding for research and restoration of sites. The bill hopes to reverse the loss of historic burial grounds and bring together the disparate web of volunteers and descendants who work to maintain historic cemeteries and bring their stories to light.

Despite repeated attempts by local communities to protect burial grounds, cities have frequently failed to prevent development from trumping the historic and spiritual significance of burial sites. In Richmond, Virginia, the city's Black cemetery was moved twice, largely at the whim of white residents moving into the newly suburbanized northside neighborhoods. Even today, a Maryland highway expansion project threatens to relocate dozens of gravesites from the 1890s. Without institutional protection or funding, historic Black cemeteries risk disappearing—and with them, huge chunks of American history.

The process of reclaiming graves, particularly when they've already been relocated or built over, can be painstaking and expensive. Volunteers like the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition in Maryland pour thousands of hours into researching historic sites, advocating with cities and property owners, and fundraising for plaques and memorials. If the proposed legislation passes, the funding and exposure (the program would fall under the purview of the National Parks Service) could support more comprehensive preservation plans and ensure long-term protection for historic Black cemeteries.

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