We must main­tain black ceme­ter­ies

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY CLARENCE B. JONES The writer, a former ad­viser to Martin Luther King Jr., is scholar in res­i­dence at the Martin Luther King Jr. Re­search & Ed­u­ca­tion In­sti­tute at Stan­ford Univer­sity and co-au­thor of “Be­hind the Dream — The Mak­ing of the Speech That Tra

Imag­ine a ceme­tery where grave­stones dis­ap­pear un­der vines, weeds and de­bris; where crypts are cracked open and ex­posed to rob­bers and the el­e­ments. It sounds like a scene from a hor­ror movie, but it’s what vis­i­tors find at Ev­er­green Ceme­tery in Rich­mond and at many other his­toric African Amer­i­can ceme­ter­ies across the United States. Fam­i­lies of­ten are un­able to find — let alone visit — the aban­doned and largely for­got­ten graves of their loved ones.

Re­cently, Vir­ginia took steps to re­verse the years of ne­glect of his­toric African Amer­i­can ceme­ter­ies, in­clud­ing Ev­er­green Ceme­tery, just 2.5 miles from the State Capi­tol. On March 3, Vir­ginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) signed a bill al­lo­cat­ing $34,000 to re­store and pre­serve Ev­er­green Ceme­tery and nearby East End Ceme­tery. This leg­is­la­tion, long over­due, should give im­pe­tus to other state gov­ern­ments, phi­lan­thropists, com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions and any group that wants to pro­tect and pre­serve these im­por­tant win­dows into African Amer­i­can his­tory and cul­ture.

For decades, Vir­ginia has funded preser­va­tion for his­toric Con­fed­er­ate ceme­ter­ies. The new leg­is­la­tion is an im­por­tant first step in pro­vid­ing the same kind of care and recog­ni­tion to the graves of African Amer­i­cans lost in the Civil War and to the mem­ory of their ser­vice and the her­itage of their com­mu­ni­ties. Civil War ceme­ter­ies, whether Con­fed­er­ate or African Amer­i­can, are not only im­por­tant spiritual mon­u­ments for fam­i­lies but also gate­ways into the peo­ple, places and events that shaped our na­tion.

The ne­glect of his­toric African Amer­i­can ceme­ter­ies is as wide­spread as it is un­known. Through­out the 19th cen­tury and much of the 20th, African Amer­i­cans were seg­re­gated even in death, of­ten buried in off-the-beat­en­path black ceme­ter­ies that, over the years, re­ceived lit­tle funding and fell into dis­re­pair.

This un­for­tu­nate legacy had no ge­o­graphic bound­aries. In the prom­i­nent Ge­orge­town neigh­bor­hood in the District, Oak Hill Ceme­tery — the lush rest­ing place of former mem­bers of Congress and me­dia moguls — is bor­dered by Mount Zion and Fe­male Union Band So­ci­ety Ceme­tery, where cracked head­stones have fallen into piles and an un­known num­ber of un­marked graves have been lost al­to­gether. Sim­i­lar heart­break­ing scenes are on full dis­play in Ge­or­gia, North Carolina, Flor­ida, Michi­gan and many other states.

The ne­glect and dis­re­pair of these ceme­ter­ies point to the broader chal­lenge of pre­serv­ing African Amer­i­can his­tory in the United States. We must do bet­ter.

While state and lo­cal gov­ern­ments have been slow to re­act, vol­un­teer, non­profit and pri­vate or­ga­ni­za­tions have moved to fill the void. In one such model for ac­tion, three years ago in North Carolina, a group of vol­un­teers, aided by a busi­ness­man, formed a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion called the Ceme­tery Restora­tion Com­mit­tee to be­gin re­pair­ing the di­lap­i­dated John N. Smith Ceme­tery in South­port, N.C. Last year, this African Amer­i­can ceme­tery of deep his­tor­i­cal and spiritual sig­nif­i­cance for the com­mu­nity, with more than 800 in­ter­ments, re­ceived a $14,500 grant from the Or­ton Foun­da­tion to help with restora­tion.

The list of in­di­vid­u­als, char­i­ties and other non­prof­its step­ping up to ad­dress this is­sue is long — but not nearly long enough. These ne­glected ceme­ter­ies are of­ten hid­den from pub­lic view. Peo­ple need to rec­og­nize that this is a prob­lem that ex­ists in too many places, per­haps even in their own com­mu­ni­ties, and mo­bi­lize oth­ers to learn about the prob­lem and act to fix it. It re­quires re­search, vol­un­teers, funding. It re­quires a part­ner­ship be­tween gov­ern­ment, phi­lan­thropists, busi­nesses, com­mu­ni­ties and non­prof­its. Most of all, it re­quires a com­mit­ment to re­claim these fad­ing pieces of our na­tion’s her­itage be­fore they are lost for­ever.

We marked the 152nd an­niver­sary of the end of the Civil War on May 9. Amer­i­cans should reaf­firm our com­mit­ment to pre­serv­ing our his­tory and pro­tect­ing it for gen­er­a­tions to come. It is worth not­ing that black soldiers in the Civil War suf­fered a 35 per­cent higher mor­tal­ity rate than other troops, even though they did not be­gin fight­ing un­til 18 months af­ter the war be­gan. This is just one of the many sto­ries that can be told through the re­vi­tal­iza­tion of our his­toric African Amer­i­can ceme­ter­ies. It is part of an im­por­tant process to con­tinue work­ing for equal­ity, even for those who came be­fore us.


A grave sur­rounded by English ivy and thorns at the his­toric Ev­er­green Ceme­tery in Rich­mond.

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