A new project is giving slave burial grounds in the United States something they’ve long been deprived of: visibility. The National Burial Database of Enslaved Americans (NBDEA) is a collaboration between the Periwinkle Initiative and Fordham University, with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the 1772 Foundation. It intends “to establish a process of official documentation for burials and burial grounds of enslaved Americans in the United States,” as the NBDEA site states.
In just the past few years, a slave cemetery was bulldozed in Houston, while another was covered with asphalt in Atlanta. In New York City in 2015, the bones of enslaved people were found below a Harlem bus depot, and in 2014 students at PS 48 in the South Bronx used a photograph to identify an unmarked “slave burying ground.” While the African Burial Ground National Monument in Lower Manhattan now honors a cemetery that was lost for decades beneath new development and rediscovered in the 1990s, the Second African Burial Ground, once located behind today’s New Museum, remains without a memorial, the only tribute appearing in the name of the nearby M’Finda Kalunga Community Garden. These places are constantly in danger of disappearing without public attention.
Sandra A. Arnold, director of the NBDEA project, recently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times called “Why Slaves’ Graves Matter.” In it, she recounts growing up and watching relatives carefully place flowers and repaint field stones for slave burials in a cemetery outside their church. Those humble acts of memorial created a tangible link to her family’s past and the people who have been forgotten:
Memorialization keeps us connected to what is most significant about those who are no longer with us. So what does it mean that the grave sites of countless enslaved Americans have not been afforded this recognition? … This is what propelled me to create the National Burial Database of Enslaved Americans. When the database is completed, it will be the first national repository of information on the grave sites of individuals who died while enslaved or after they were emancipated.
Arnold initially proposed the project back in 2013. It’s planned to work somewhat like Find a Grave, with freely available, crowdsourced information. Currently you can submit a burial for the preliminary listings. The first NBDEA report is scheduled to be released in May.
Being overlooked is just one of the indignities suffered by these cemeteries over the years. In the 18th century, in New York and elsewhere, they were also sites of bodysnatching, often for dissection. Bess Lovejoy wrote for Lapham’s Quarterly that there’s “every reason to think the graverobbing was an open secret around early New York, known and tolerated by elites who justified the growing anatomical expertise in the new nation produced — just like much of the rest of the early city was produced — on the backs of blacks.”
The monuments for slave burials that do exist have, more often than not, been grassroots efforts, such as the Tomb of the Unknown Slave outside St. Augustine Church in New Orleans. Its huge, weathered cross of chains was created in 2004 as a symbolic tribute to the numerous unmarked graves around the city, although it does not mark a burial itself. And slave monuments in cemeteries are often staggeringly small in relation to the number of lives they remember: In Memphis’s Elmwood Cemetery, a single stone memorializes over 300 slaves who died between 1852 and 1865. That miniature mass grave monument sits just steps away from the orderly tombs of Confederate soldiers.
Preservation battles are increasingly being waged around the United States for these sites. In Leesburg, Virginia, a long-neglected African-American cemetery with burials dating back to slavery is finally the subject of a preservation plan to guard it from a nearby airport’s expansion. In Cypress, Texas, a new subdivision has raised concerns that graves believed to be in its proximity were not investigated prior to development. It might seem like a simple act to have sites and graves listed online in the NBDEA, yet each entry is a call to remember and humanize people who have for too long been forgotten.
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