For the Forgotten African-American Dead

I came across this article today. The article contrasts the dilapidated state of many African-American cemeteries with confederate cemeteries in the South.

“Before we take the first of two turns to enter East End and Evergreen — an adjacent African-American cemetery that is just as overgrown and almost three times as large — we pass a neatly landscaped graveyard, the Confederate Section of Oakwood Cemetery. Oakwood is owned by the City of Richmond; this particular section, however, gets an extra helping of taxpayer money from the State Legislature every year. In fact, dozens of Confederate cemeteries across the state have been receiving such allotments, for roughly 100 years. The cash goes to private entities like the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Stonewall Confederate Memorial Association through the Virginia Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. From 2007 to mid-2016, Virginia’s General Assembly handed the Daughters more than $700,000.”

As the article’s author, Brian Palmer, tells us, “The United Daughters of the Confederacy was founded in the 1890s on the twin myths of the tragic yet noble Lost Cause of the Confederacy and the happy black folks who just loved them some slavery. That my tax dollars flow into their coffers doesn’t sit well with this descendant of enslaved people who escaped the Confederacy and fought for the United States in the Civil War — in the waning days of the conflict, my great-grandfather Mat liberated himself from a farm in Goochland County, Va., and joined the 115th Infantry Regiment of the United States Colored Troops. He signed up here in Richmond. My great-grandmother Julia’s family escaped Gloucester County, Va., for Union-held territory in York County.”

Thus far, Virginia hasn’t done itself proud when it comes to the care of African-American graves. “Bills introduced in the General Assembly to provide any funds to save historic African-American cemeteries in Virginia have died — or been killed — in committee. Later this month, when the Legislature opens its 45-day session, Virginia’s lawmakers will have another chance to get on the right side of history. On Dec. 29, Delores McQuinn, a Democratic state delegate from Richmond, introduced House Bill 1547, drafted in collaboration with the administration of Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Beginning in 2018, it would allot roughly $35,000 a year to preserve historical graves and cemeteries ‘of African-Americans who lived at any time between January 1, 1800, and January 1, 1900.’ The appropriation would become part of the Code of Virginia, just like the Confederate graves provision.”

As we can see, things could be changing for the better, and it’s a good thing. Palmer tells us, ” ‘Nobody has ever really looked at how many African-American cemeteries there are’ in Virginia or across the South, Dr. Michael Trinkley, an archaeologist who works with the Chicora Foundation, told me. But ‘you can’t have the history of the South without having the history of African-Americans.’ ”

That profound comment deserves repeating: “You can’t have the history of the South without having the history of African-Americans.” Indeed, you can’t have the history of the United States without having the history of African-Americans … and Latino-Americans … and Asian-Americans … and all the other ethnicities that make up this great nation.

Palmer stresses, “There are abandoned and neglected historic African-American cemeteries across the South and the country as a whole.” This is true. Pennsylvania has implemented a program to identify, preserve, and interpret African-American cemeteries in the state. It’s known as the Hallowed Ground Project. I attended a conference dealing with this project last year, and it was a great experience. There’s optimism this could spread around the country.


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