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Here’s Why Historically Black Cemeteries Need To Be Protected As Landmarks

By Danielle Dorsey

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White American slave owners did not put much thought or care into where their “property” was buried. Turnover was high and in some places it’s estimated that 90 percent of enslaved Black children died before reaching the age of 16. Coffins were cobbled together with whatever leftover scraps could be dredged up. Burial grounds were often poorly marked areas near slave quarters or Black churches.

Over the years, many historically Black cemeteries have fallen into disrepair, with oil and real estate companies eyeing those lands for development. The people buried in these makeshift graveyards were denied a voice while living, but now their descendants are championing on their behalf and demanding that these sites be preserved so that their ancestors may rest in peace.

In the Louisiana Gulf Coast, Mt. Zion Baptist Association has been in a decades-long battle with Axiall Corporation, a chemical manufacturing company that claims ownership of a cemetery in the historically Black port town of Reveilletown. Reveilletown is no longer a municipality and  the town’s 100 or so residents were forced to disperse after local power plants caused cancer rates to rise to astronomical numbers. Most migrated to nearby towns of Revilletown Park and Brusly, but the cemetery of Reveilletown was preserved and residents were told that they could continue to visit and bury relatives there.

The since-expanded Axiall Corporation walked back on this promise and filed its own claim on the cemetery, stating that they acquired ownership in 1970 when Georgia Gulf (now merged with Axiall Corporation) bought the property. A judge ruled in favor of Axiall, forcing former Reveilletown residents to provide two days notice before visiting or burying family members in the cemetery. Later, a First Circuit court ruled that Axiall did not own the cemetery. Today, the battle continues to play out in court, with Axiall now a billion-dollar company that has plenty of resources to remain engaged in this fight.

In Queens, New York, St. Mark AME Church is trying to find a cultural or city institution that will work alongside them to preserve the lot where 300 of their free Black ancestors are buried. The lot was owned by 90 Queens Inc, who had planned to build a five-story condominium on top of it, but an archaeological restriction attached to the property that specifies that St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church be consulted prior to any development on the lot, stymied their plans and eventually pushed the firm to sell the land. 90 Queens claims that they offered to build a 5,000-square-foot cultural space on the ground level of the condominium, but St. Mark AME Church says that it didn’t fit their vision for the lot.

Both of these incidents point to a larger national movement that seeks to create federal protections for historically Black cemeteries. In 2018, the state of Louisiana assembled the Slavery Ancestral Burial Grounds Preservation Commission, which includes Janice Dickerson, who has been active in the legal battle between Mt. Zion Baptist Association and Axiall Corporation. The commission is dedicated to creating solutions for preserving and memorializing cemeteries such as those in now-defunct Reveilletown.

Sandra Arnold, a graduate fellow at Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, started the Periwinkle Humanities Initiative, which is building a database of national burial sites of enslaved Americans to promote their relevance within American history and assist Black Americans in more accurately tracing their ancestry. In February, North Carolina Congresswoman Alma Adams introduced a bill that would allow the National Park Service to provide assistance to those researching and preserving burial sites.

The people buried in these cemeteries were forced to toil over lands they could never own, with many dying before ever being recognized as fully human. Their lives were not recorded with birth, marriage, or death certificates, but passed down in family lore. They were buried on the outskirts and over time their headstones have been plowed over and displaced. With corporations now looking to stake ownership of these lands, it’s more important than ever that we pursue federal protections and give these sites the historical recognition they deserve.

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