If enacted, recently proposed legislation in Congress would create a national voluntary database to identify African-American burial grounds.
U.S. Representatives A. Donald McEachin, D-Richmond, and Alma S. Adams, D-North Carolina, introduced last week the “African-American Burial Grounds Network Act.”
This legislation would create, through the National Park Service, a voluntary national network of historic African-American burial grounds, and would provide information, technical support and grants to aid in the research, identification, preservation, and restoration of burial sites that register with the network.
These burial grounds are often lost as they are not identified with any local, state or national authority.
“This is history. We must preserve it. Right now there is no database,” Adams said. “It is hurtful to individuals and to communities.”
These cemeteries are not only African-American history but American history, McEachin stated in an email.
“African-American burial grounds are an essential part of our nation’s history and deserve protection. Descendants of those interred should be able to visit these sacred sites to honor and remember their family members,” he stated.
Historically, African-American cemeteries nationwide have been ignored, McEachin stated.
“These historic spaces have been shamefully neglected. The ‘African American Burial Grounds Network Act’ aims to correct this injustice by providing federal recognition and support for these sacred sites. I look forward to this bill becoming law so we can correct this issue in our communities,” he added.
Often these burial sites are found only by accident when a construction project breaks ground and uncovers them.
Adams said that contractors, when they are building, don’t know they are on burial grounds. “It’s a horrible thing for community history and for family history,” she said.
There is a lot that occurs beyond people’s control, such as hurricanes or tornado disasters, but Adams said this is something moving forward that can be controlled to protect these final resting places from damage or abuse.
Adams said she believes the proposed bill is a non-partisan issue and will get broad support.
“We want to get this right,” she said.
Jonathan Noyalas, history professor at Shenandoah University and director of SU’s McCormick Civil War Institute, said he had just talked to his class about this topic of undocumented or lost African-American cemeteries.
He said in the Northern Virginia region there have to be hundreds of those cemeteries.
“But there is no real way to know. In the case of the cemetery in Middletown (Mount Zion Cemetery), it is only known because you had a couple people who know it is there,” Noyalas said.
Mount Zion Cemetery is just one example of one of the few now known abandoned cemeteries. Even in those cemeteries, however, the names and the stories of most of the slaves and emancipated African-Americans buried there are lost to written history. The final resting place of slaves are marked with a nondescript field stone.
Shenandoah Library Archivist Zach Hottel discussed the cemeteries in Woodstock and Shenandoah County in an email.
Hottel stated he did not know the exact number of African-American cemeteries in Woodstock or in Shenandoah County. He is aware of one that is active and one that is inactive in Woodstock. He said there have been six that have been documented in some way in the county.
“Nationally and locally the stories of many of these cemeteries is often forgotten because African-American communities have historically lacked the resources necessary to develop cemeteries along the lines of traditional white cemeteries. They don’t have the same signs, size, design, etc. of other cemeteries. This often leads to the cemetery being forgotten, overgrown, etc.,” Hottel wrote.
It is not just the story on the individual that is lost, but often the history of a family line is lost, Noyalas said.
“That creates a very simplistic view of the past; you only have a white history in essence. African-Americans played an important role in American history, and they are lost,” Noyalas said. “You are saying these people’s lives had no meaning. It’s very sad.”
Noyalas said the proposed legislation is important.
It is another tool to help historians and preservation groups find these cemeteries, start documenting them, preserving them and making them public to tell the life stories of those who have been forgotten for way too long, Noyalas said,
“It is exciting,” Noyalas said of the proposed legislation.