As Black History Month drew to a close this year, many Black individuals and organizations used the final days of February to honor their ancestors, with part of this being a fight to protect their resting places.
The virtual “Black History Month Celebration” hosted by the African American Cemetery Coalition on Feb. 26 brought together independent organizations, artists, religious communities and individuals to display the importance of the contributions that Black people have made in the United States. Much of the event was centered around the persisting efforts to preserve Black burial grounds all across America.
“I continue to say clearly, Black cemeteries are Black history,” said Antoinette Jackson, founder of The Black Cemetery Network, who spoke at Saturday’s event. “It is important that we share the history of these cemeteries, but also the history of the people and the communities associated with these cemeteries.
Jackson went on to say that Black cemeteries span the history of Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era and other significant time periods. Locally, organizations like African Graves Matter have recently joined this mission to protect and commemorate this history. Spearheaded by native Brooklyn resident Harriet Hines, AGM was conceived in response to city and nationwide efforts to “desecrate” sacred Black burial grounds.
“We formulated to let the city, community and nation know that we do not want affordable housing or an urban farm placed on top of the Flatbush African Burial Ground, or any sacred site to be desecrated,” said Hines, whose main target is preserving the aforementioned gravesite in Flatbush, where there were plans to develop housing.
AGM was founded last May when Hines was running for City Council District 40 in Brooklyn. During this time, she heard about the development plans alongside an alternative that Hines claimed other community groups were pushing for—urban farms.
“We said no, no urban farms or housing on top of the burial ground,” said Hines who began demonstrating and conducting outreach to local officials to consider banning an RFP (request for proposal) for the burial ground in Flatbush.
“We did manage to garner the support of former borough president, Eric Adams, who is now our mayor, and he supported a greenspace memorial stating that no affordable housing would be placed on the burial ground.”
Prior to Saturday’s virtual celebration, (which AGM took part in), U.S. senators Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) co-sponsored a bill dedicated to assisting local organizations in preserving Black burial sites. Senator Brown spoke briefly about The African Burial Grounds Preservation Act at the event.
“There are probably hundreds and hundreds of cemeteries that this bill will help to identify, and ultimately I hope preserve,” said Brown, who said he met with local leaders to survey a Black cemetery in Cincinnati. “It would set up and fund a program through the National Parks Service and provide grant opportunities.”
Despite a bill that some may think is revolutionary, others say it does not cover all bases when it comes to select burial grounds.
“It does not address a fundamental problem that the majority of African burial grounds are in the hands of private owners,” said Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, president of Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition. “What we have to do is work with the legislators to expand this legislation so that it really has the impact that they intend for it to have. Politicians are generally nervous about intervening in the private sector.”