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Service & Impact
spring 2024

Rescuing The Resting Places

Without reclaiming a forgotten past, we can’t fully embrace the future
Written by: Ron Stodghill

Nestled against Atlanta’s northern edge, Buckhead—also known as the “Beverly Hills of the South”—epitomizes Southern affluence. Few communities in the region are wealthier—its streets are dotted with art galleries and designer boutiques, from Versace to Saint Laurent—or boast such a dreamscape of historic architecture and Michelin-star cuisine.

But Buckhead, it turns out, is more than a playground for the wine and cheese crowd. As residents are discovering, grown-over grave plots have been purposefully erased from history in favor of the town’s development. Buried beneath its gilded streets are the graves of Black people resting, forgotten, in Mount Olive Cemetery. Graves are being discovered even today, contributing to the sense of a growing burial ground.

During a recent visit, in a cold autumn drizzle, I stood alongside New Hope African Methodist Episcopal Church pastor Rev. David F. Richards III. The AME was founded in 1869 and his congregation, in recent years, has been on a mission to recover and preserve the burial sites of enslaved Black and freed residents eroded by time, commercial development and gentrification.

“Everything under here that you’re standing on is slaves graves,” Richards told me, pointing yonder. “All the way back through here… ”

From Mount Moor in West Nyack, New York, to Pinehurst and San Sebastian in St. Augustine, Florida, to Belmont Enslaved Cemetery in Belmont, Virginia, the growing movement to preserve Black burial grounds has reached Buckhead’s Mount Olive. Across the U.S., community leaders, historians and lawmakers alike are restoring Black burial sites disregarded for generations by local politicians and plowed over by commercial and residential developers. “There is a lot of hidden history, and over the next few years, we’re going to see a lot of it unearthed,” Camille Russell Love, executive director of Atlanta’s cultural affairs office, said recently in a local news interview.

In contrast to white cemeteries, Black ones were generally relegated to a property’s periphery and marked by such inexpensive objects as fieldstones, seashells and fragile teacups or teapots. Beyond the meager allowances given to Black cemeteries in the past, the years since have been unkind to these final resting places. Dr. Antoinette Jackson of the University of Southern Florida founded the Black Cemetery Network to recover and record the graves that have been overgrown and underfunded due to neglectful local governments and city services.

“People often think of cemeteries as totally in the past, but cemeteries really represent what we want to be about in the future,” Jackson told a university interviewer. “How we honor, memorialize and remember all our ancestors and sacred sites says a lot about who we are as a people and a community. It’s really central for Black Heritage Month because so much history is contained by knowing about cemeteries.”

As a nation, we have failed to preserve historic Black burial grounds.

SENATOR SHERROD BROWN

Protective measures

Against a rising tide of commercial and racial politics, the movement to protect the Black burial land at Buckhead’s Mount Olive is just getting started. The area has become popular among Atlanta’s nouveau riche, from rappers to film producers to sports agents. Longtime residents complain the influx has brought a spike in crime and noisy crowds to Buckhead. Georgia senators in 2022 blocked a bill to let the Buckhead neighborhood secede from Atlanta. The rationale: when it comes to city services, Buckhead, which makes up less than 20% of Atlanta’s population and 40% of its tax revenue, is getting a raw deal from the city. Secession debates between Atlanta’s Black political machine and Buckhead’s white powerbrokers got really nasty.

But such tension has not slowed New Hope AME’s efforts to discover and honor the lives of Black ancestors who helped create Buckhead. According to a Patch News article, the church has partnered with the Buckhead Heritage Society and successfully placed Mount Olive on the National Register of Historic Places. Over $40,000 was raised to do survey and restoration work in the cemetery, resulting in a land survey of 100 unmarked graves and a possible crypt, and the implementation of a new fence and a weekly care schedule.

The exact number of historic Black gravesites spread across the U.S. is anybody’s guess. But the African American Burial Grounds Network Act, sponsored by U.S.

Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), has been enacted to create a network of Black cemeteries and a formal database of historic Black burial sites—including grant funding for research and restoration—run by the National Park Service. The goal: increase visitation at these sites and offer a fuller, more accurate reflection of American history and culture. “As a nation, we have failed to preserve historic Black burial grounds around the country. That’s why we’ve worked with the community, and with civil rights, veterans and historic preservation groups to introduce bipartisan legislation to preserve these hallowed grounds,” Brown said.

He introduced legislation in 2019 after Union Baptist Cemetery, founded in 1864 in Covedale, Cincinnati, was vandalized. The grounds include the remains of former slaves, African American Union soldiers and civil rights activists. “Cemeteries like Union Baptist are important historical sites, and they’re tools for education and understanding the American story.” The bill was passed in the Senate in December 2020. “Now we will be able to preserve these sites before they are lost to the ravages of time or development,” Brown added. The Network Act evolved into the African American Burial Grounds Preservation Act and was reintroduced in February 2022, then signed into law the following December.

Preservation efforts

Several years ago, while working as a columnist in Charlotte, North Carolina, I was shown the burial land crisis first-hand by a concerned resident tipster. Just in 2012, Roseland Cemetery of Matthews, North Carolina, was designated a historic site by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Commission. Despite being the final resting place of about 75 deceased African Americans since 1865, it took decades for the rediscovery of what the Mecklenburg County Historical report describes as “a hidden gem of historical information.”

Since becoming a historic cemetery, “Renfrow Quarters,” now known as Roseland Cemetery, has been a priority for Matthews residents’ restoration and preservation endeavors, according to the volunteer group Monroe Road Advocates. The Taft Development Group is preserving trees, maintaining historically appropriate fencing and signage on the property and providing public access to the cemetery. Doing so showcases how the people of Matthews care for the history of African Americans and ensures Roseland remains a reminder of the area’s rural African American experience, nearly wiped out and erased in the years following the Emancipation Proclamation, due to white supremacy and Jim Crow sentiments.

As similar recovery and preservation efforts occur in states across the U.S., Rev. Richards and his congregation are rejoicing. As Atlanta’s most famous clergyman, Martin Luther King Jr., once said: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’” That includes those buried beneath u.

Ron Stodghill, the co-founder of DETOUR (www.detourxp.com), is an award-winning journalist and professor at the Missouri School of Journalism. Additional reporting by Campbell Hamai, a DETOUR associate producer and Meredith-McClatchy Scholar.

“Cemeteries really represent what we want to be about in the future.”
– Antoinette Jackson

Journeys into the past

If you’re interested in visiting recovered African American burial grounds, here are three to consider.

Higgs Beach, Florida: African Cemetery

Rather than housing the remains of enslaved and free Black people, the African Cemetery is the final home for a community of African men, women and children who were being transported as illegal human cargo along the transatlantic slave route. The cemetery was rediscovered in 2002 and added to the National Register of Historic Places due to its unique significance to archaeologists. The gravesite has been consecrated by tribal leaders, decorated with Adrinkas symbolizing slavery and an African temple, since its rediscovery.

West Nyack, New York: Mount Moor Cemetery

This cemetery has been dwarfed by the presence of the massive Palisades Mall since 1998, despite being in what is now the parking lot since July 1849. Mount Moor is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and remained in its place despite offers of tens of thousands of dollars from land developers to disrupt and relocate the graves of about 90 Black American civilians and veterans.  The Mount Moor Cemetery Association continues to care for this sacred space even amongst the hustle and bustle of shoppers and cars zooming along the surrounding highways.

Richmond, Virginia: Evergreen Cemetery

Richmond’s most celebrated cemetery is the Hollywood Cemetery, home to Confederate soldiers, two U.S. presidents and a reputed vampire. But the city’s most forgotten cemetery is Evergreen, home of social activists and leaders such as Rev. J. Andrew Bowler, Maggie L. Walker and A.D. Price. The East-End Virginia site dates back to 1891 and has been undergoing a cleanup process since 2017, funded through its purchase by the Enrichmond Foundation.

Source: Jonathan Carey; Atlas Obscura

From an interview with Louis Carr