New legislation proposed to Congress last week seeks to protect undocumented African-American burial grounds across the U.S. and would establish a first–of–its–kind database for tracking the historic sites.
As reported by Forbes, cemeteries containing the remains of enslaved or segregated Black Americans have been uncovered in recent years during new construction projects nationwide after going unnoticed for centuries because they were never documented. Now a pair of lawmakers are looking reclaim the missing pieces of the past.
The bill, proposed by Rep. A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) and Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.) on Wednesday, would establish the African American Burial Ground Network as part of the National Parks Service. Not only would it greenlight the creation of a federal nationwide database to track the once forgotten sites, but it also would house additional information, provide educational materials for surrounding communities, and secure funding for additional research.
Legislators said the bill is intended to “help communities identify and record burial grounds and preserve local history while better informing development decisions and community planning.”
Fox News points out that while African-American burial grounds have been steadily discovered over the past few decades, no nationwide initiative has been launched to centralize information about the sites and their history — until now.
In the past few years alone, numerous construction projects and archaeological digs have incidentally stumbled upon these unmarked graves. In New York, an African burial ground was discovered in East Harlem back in 2016. Community activists had for years contended there were antebellum remains that lay underneath the 126th Street Bus Depot in Upper Manhattan.
At the site, which was revealed to be a Dutch Reformed Church churchyard where Black Americans were buried during the 17th to 19th centuries, archaeologists uncovered over 140 bones and bone fragments, including an intact skull that likely belonged to a middle-aged African woman, Atlanta Black Star reported.
Meanwhile, community members in Bethesda, Md., expressed outrage at plans to build a parking garage atop a historic burial ground in 2017. Construction crews reportedly uncovered human remains on land church leaders said was once home to the historic Black River Road African Cemetery, which existed until it was covered in the 1960s to create the parking lot for what’s now the Westwood Towers apartments.
In 2018, the Shell Covenant Refinery in Ascension Parish, La., moved to honor and mark the two plantations where the graves of nearly 1,000 enslaved Blacks were discovered five years prior. The slaves’ descendants were allowed onto the property to pay their respects.