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Start reclaiming black cemeteries

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DURING THIS Black History Month, there is much to be done to recapture and reclaim our black heritage. One major undertaking lies right under our feet -- the reclamation and preservation of thousands of African-American cemeteries.

I was recently reminded of the need for this work when I went home to Cincinnati. As part of a weekend of racial reconciliation, members of local Unitarian churches placed handsome headstones on the graves of my great-grandparents in a small black cemetery there. These churches were atoning for past discrimination against the Rev. W.H.G. Carter, my great-grandfather, who in 1918 founded the first black Unitarian congregation in the country.

Local white Unitarian ministers knew of Carter's congregation but chose not to help him in his ministry or to tell the national office about his church because they said his storefront church was in the wrong part of town.

The cemetery my great-grandparents are buried in is not unlike many that dot the countryside and urban neighborhoods of this country. These small cemeteries are a priceless repository of America's black past, but in many cases they are languishing.

I have been in cemeteries where there is scarcely a way to identify where graves are, much less who is buried in each plot. The small metal frame signs and wooden markers that originally marked the graves fade, disintegrate or sink into the ground with time. Tree roots can grow under small headstones and topple them.

I have climbed over untamed vegetation, cactus and roots that have obscured the graves of black Americans, and I have silently prayed for someone to take care of the anonymous resting places of some of my own ancestors.

Some of these resting places have been disturbed by construction projects. In New York City, digging for a federal building in 1991 uncovered a burial ground for slaves who had lived during the 1700s. At the time the burial ground was discovered, it was estimated that thousands of people had been interred there.

Black activists were outraged at the disturbance of the final resting place of those who had labored ceaselessly during their lives. In the settlement that was finally worked out, archaeologists from historically black Howard University, led by Michael Blakey, analyzed the bones from the cemetery before they were to be ceremonially re-interred.

At a symposium on the African Diaspora at the University of Texas at Austin in 1996, Mr. Blakey told me the bones revealed that half the slaves died of malnutrition and infections by the time they were 12 years old. Damaged bones and other evidence showed that slaves did extremely hard physical labor. In short, Mr. Blakey said, the bones were those of people who were literally worked to death.

In Dallas, work on a major expressway had to be temporarily halted in 1986 when it disturbed the Freedman's Cemetery, which is full of the remains of hundreds of blacks. The remains of the more than 1,500 people who were buried there were re-interred in 1994, after an agreement was worked out between descendants of those buried there and the Texas Department of Transportation and the Dallas Parks Board.

Excavation in the mid-1990s for a swimming pool at a new apartment complex in Austin, Texas, turned up another black burial ground. Part of the complex was built on the cemetery ground over the objections of people who said they had relatives buried there.

Even when the locations of these cemeteries are known, carefully studying them can yield new information. In Austin, elementary schoolchildren doing research in a cemetery across the street from their school in 1997 found a concrete marker for what local historians said might be the oldest black grave in the city.

People make jokes about Black History Month being the shortest in the year, but we don't have to allow the calendar to define when we honor those who can no longer speak for themselves, yet who can still tell us so much about our past. Reclamation, documentation and preservation of black burial grounds is a year-round task that we can all help accomplish.

Starita Smith, a former newspaper reporter and editor, is an award-winning writer and editor based in Denton, Texas, where she is a graduate student at the University of North Texas. This article was prepared for the Progressive Media Project, which is distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services

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