Preserving African-American Cemeteries

Under a popular park in Washington, D.C., there is a 19th century burial ground that was once the largest African-American cemetery in the city. Advocates want to protect the park from further development and create space for a memorial. But how many other such burial grounds are in similar straits, and how have others solved the problem of co-existing with development and gentrification?

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Beneath a popular park in Washington, D.C., lies a 19th century cemetery. It was once the largest burial ground for African-Americans in the District. Many others across the nation are in similar straits, and some feel an invaluable history is at risk. NPR's Allison Keyes reports on slave-era cemeteries threatened by development.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: Walter Pierce Community Park in northwest Washington is a friendly place with a playground and a dog park. According to an archeological study, the park is also home to the graves of nearly 8,500 people. Howard University anthropology professor Eleanor King consulted on the report.

ELEANOR KING: And I think you can see from the materials that you have displayed in front of you, the various coffin hardware, the offerings that were on top of the coffins and so forth, it's very clear that those 8,000 people, they weren't moved, right? They're still here.

MARY BELCHER: We want to make sure their stories are told.

KEYES: Mary Belcher spearheaded the investigation, which included a ground survey and a check of the death records of those buried here.

BELCHER: A lot of them came here as refugees of the Civil War. And a lot of them were - ran away from slavery. A lot of them are members of Washington's earliest free families.

KEYES: This cemetery operated from 1870 to 1890. Twentieth century developers wanted the land for apartment buildings but found graves and bones when they started digging. Now, Belcher and others want a memorial, something more substantial than the current signs reading: Gardening is not permitted - this is a historic cemetery. And Belcher says it's lucky this is a public park.

BELCHER: A lot of other African-American cemeteries in D.C. today are under parking lots. They're under buildings, they're under schools. They'll never be remembered or found.

KEYES: Even small burial plots could have great historical significance. Descendants of Jesse Scott Sammons just discovered this year that a family cemetery exists in Charlottesville, Virginia.

CINDER STANTON: There are four inscribed stones here, and at least a dozen graves and perhaps more.

KEYES: Historian Cinder Stanton says Jesse Scott Sammons was descendant from the sister of Sally Hemmings, the enslaved mother of six of Thomas Jefferson's children. She says this cemetery is one of few tangible pieces of evidence of a vibrant community of blacks who bought much of the land here.

STANTON: And the stories that now are told in reputable books and in newspapers here in the county are that the white people gave the land to their former slaves when it couldn't be farther from the truth.

KEYES: But the cemetery is within 18 feet of a highway bypass planned by the Virginia Department of Transportation. And though VDOT says it's working with the family, Sammons family descendant Erica Caple James is appalled.

ERICA CAPLE JAMES: To know that that peaceful setting that they once owned and cared for but were not able to retain possession of will now be bisected, and it's by a federal highway, and that the peacefulness, the integrity of the site will forever be altered, I mean, just imagine how you feel. It feels awful.

KEYES: James is also a professor of anthropology at MIT. She says history is being lost.

JAMES: Not only cemeteries but properties belonging to African-Americans and other ethnic minorities are at greater risk in part because there was a mass exodus of African-Americans from the south to the north. You know, many people did not retain ties or knowledge of, you know, cemeteries if they did exist.

MICHAEL BLAKEY: I think it's especially keen with regard to the burials of the enslaved. And there is a long history of dishonoring those people.

KEYES: William and Mary anthropology professor Michael Blakey is one of the leading experts on African and African-American burial grounds in the country. He says the ritual treatment of the dead is one of the fundamental definitions of humankind. And the fact that enslaved blacks created cemeteries was a kind of resistance in itself.

BLAKEY: Cemeteries are one of many things that need to be done to shake up the sensibility of Americans about the full humanity of those people who built this country.

KEYES: In Richmond, Va., activists were able to reclaim an African burial ground that was being used as a parking lot by Virginia Commonwealth University up until 2011. Ana Edwards, chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, stands proudly in the rain in front of the gleaming green three acres between the train tracks and the expressway.

ANA EDWARDS: They removed all of the asphalt that, you know, was the parking lot and, with donated resources, laid the sod that gives us at least a memorial park right now.

KEYES: Edwards says it was important to win the battle to unearth this site that was used as a burial ground from about 1750 to 1816 by both enslaved and free African-Americans.

EDWARDS: The point of this was to help demonstrate for ourselves and for everybody else that the black community also owns Richmond and therefore is vested in what happens to it going forward.

KEYES: Edwards says if people could reclaim a site like this, there isn't any reason why they can't insist on other things that are important to the community. Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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