On June 19, 2020, a group of activists gathered along the edge of a large fenced field, the site of a former plantation and future home of a proposed plastics plant in St. James Parish, Louisiana. The day was not just any day, but Juneteenth, which commemorates the day the last enslaved people were emancipated in Texas in 1865. Activists from the environmental justice group RISE St. James were there to hold a vigil for the unmarked graves of enslaved people discovered in a pre-construction survey of the land.
The company had offered to remove the remains to another location, angering the local community. Corporate security patrols watched as the group prayed, sang the African American spiritual “Oh Freedom,” and laid flowers for the dead. At one point during the ceremony, a local cemetery custodian took the microphone and powerfully intoned,
“When you’re going to a cemetery, you look at the headstone. You see the year the person came into the world, a dash, and the year they left this world. I want to talk about that dash. That dash symbolizes the time you stand on this earth… It speaks about you, your contributions, what you bring to the table. On these sacred holy grounds, we don’t know what their dash was. We don’t know who may have a relative here.”
One wishes that they could say this was an exceptional circumstance, but the disturbance of the cemeteries of enslaved people in the United States is all-too-common. Graves have been found under parking lots, gas stations, and pools or have been completely lost or destroyed altogether. For many, the Juneteenth holiday has become a day to not only mark the official end of a horrific American institution and celebrate Black culture, but also to pay respects and fight for the preservation of these people’s final resting places. Here at TalkDeath, we want to highlight these celebrations and the broader work that is being done to underline that these sites matter and prevent the lives and deaths of enslaved people from being erased forever.
Juneteenth and the Cemeteries of Enslaved People: Centuries of Neglect and Erasure
Neglect and Erasure
Despite the significant number of people who were enslaved from 1620 to 1865, there is little research on how they buried their dead. This gap is partly due to the state of their cemeteries, which are not protected by any federal mandate and often no longer have markers (if they ever did). As bioanthropologist Michael Blakey notes, enslaved people often could only have a limited number of people at a funeral or could not mark the burial spot. At other times, having any ceremony or burial was an act of resistance altogether or took place at night after working hours. This illegibility—both physically and in the eyes of the law—has been heightened by systematic neglect and demolishment, especially in the name of urban growth and development.
Many plantations were sold and split up, and the cemeteries of the enslaved were rarely documented and prioritized as the land was repurposed for other uses. Historians argue that this erasure was also enabled by Jim Crow legislation that mandated segregation after the Civil War, which violently pushed many Black people out of the communities where they had buried their dead for generations.
While we may never know how many cemeteries have been lost, previously unknown sites like the one in St. James Parish are discovered almost every year. The largest is the African Burial Ground in New York City, which was found in 1991 during building construction and is believed to include the graves of up to 15,000 enslaved people. In the last year alone, cemeteries containing the remains of enslaved or formerly enslaved people have been found or identified in Delaware, Kentucky, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee.
These sites offer glimpses into an era not often represented in formal studies of American history and insights about a group of people whose humanity was continually contested. “What most people know as a cemetery with curving obelisks and white marble stone is associated with only one segment of the population,” says Lynn Rainville, author of Hidden History: African American Cemeteries in Central Virginia. “When you destroy these graves, it’s erasing the people yet again.”
Juneteenth, Preservation, and Activism
Since 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement has made significant gains in challenging the ways in which white people are socialized to see racism as a relic of the distant past. This public awareness of the conditions of contemporary Black life has also led to an increase in those interested in saving historically Black cemeteries. One major approach some activists have taken is attempting to create legal protections. In February 2019, congressional representatives from North Carolina and Virginia introduced the African American Burial Grounds Study Act to establish federal recognition and direct the National Park Service to study ways to account for and preserve these sacred sites. The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and was endorsed by over 60 organizations but died in the House. It is unclear if this bill will be reintroduced, but it remains an important step in starting conversations about preservation and protection at the national level.
The lack of comprehensive data about these places has led others, such as the Periwinkle Humanities Initiative, to aggregate existing records from around the country. Named after the wildflower said to dot the graves of the enslaved so that loved ones could find them, the Periwinkle Initiative has begun developing the National Burial Database of Enslaved Americans. The database is a work-in-progress that collects historical documents and oral histories as a way to create an official burial record and give dignity to the life and death of the deceased. While these kinds of sizable projects progress, many communities and researchers have taken on smaller-scale local projects to find and preserve cemeteries of enslaved people.
Although every cemetery’s condition varies, activists and volunteers have variously come together to clean them up (i.e. weeding and marking potential graves) and work with genealogical, historical, or preservation societies to identify who is buried there. These efforts have also become a powerful Juneteenth tradition to celebrate Black perseverance and memorialize the sanctity—and humanity—of Black life in an environment where it is still regularly challenged.
2022 Juneteenth Cemetery Cleanups and Celebrations
Interested in attending or getting involved in a cleanup or celebration at a historically Black cemetery this Juneteenth? We suggest that you do! This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are some major events happening around the country this year:
- Alexandria, VA: Join community members in cleaning up Frederick Douglass Memorial and Penny Hill Cemeteries.
- Rye, NY: The Friends of the African American Cemetery and the leadership of The Osborne welcome neighbors to celebrate and serve on Juneteenth. The Town of Rye will be celebrating Juneteenth and feature speakers and will be followed by a service event to beautify the cemetery.
- Little Rock, AK: The Arkansas Freethinkers Society are hosting their second annual Juneteenth clean up of Fraternal Cemetery. Volunteers can then head to Oakland Cemetery if time permits.
- Monroe, GA: Join the Friends of Zion Hill for their Juneteenth community clean-up day. Water and snacks will be provided as volunteers weed at, rake leaves, and remove fallen branches from the historic cemetery. This work will benefit the efforts of the Friends of Zion Hill Cemetery Project.
- Atlanta, GA: Oakland Cemetery has opened back up for free walking tours, and during the entire month of June in celebration of Juneteenth you can also join guided walking tours about the history, lives, and labors of Atlanta’s African American women (Black Magnolias Walking Tour). Be sure to sign up in advance!
- New Paltz, NY: The New Paltz Juneteenth celebration will begin with a commemoration for the first Black people in New Paltz at the New Paltz Rural Cemetery, followed by speakers tours, music, lunch, and children’s crafts.
- Jackson, GA: On Saturday, June 18, 2022, the city of Jackson will dedicate a plaque to mark the graves of more than 100 unknown Black people who were buried in Section 10 of the Jackson City Cemetery.
- Lexington, KY: Juneteenth weekend will have greatly expanded in Lexington, but still highlights the 17th Annual Juneteenth Jubilee at African Cemetery No. 2.
- Catonsville, MD: There is an Onelle Cemetery Cleanup event happening on Saturday, June 18, 2022. Free to attend and all welcome!
- Houston, TX: Descendants of Olivewood host their bi-monthly clean up of Olivewood Cemetery on June 18. Email them to let them know you are coming and help protect one of America’s 11 most endangered historic places.
- Carrollton, TX: Christ Community Connection, Inc. is hosting a cemetery clean up at the Carrollton Black Cemetery followed by a gathering at Mary Heads Carter Park.