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.
2021 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:
- Altadena, California: The Altadena Historical Society will hold a celebration for 19th century civil rights activist Ellen Garrison Clark and put a headstone on her unmarked grave at Mountain View Cemetery.
- Hartford, Connecticut: There will be a ceremony at Old Center Cemetery to recognize the humanity and contributions of the enslaved individuals who helped the town.
- Atlanta, Georgia: Oakland Cemetery is hosting an in-person event for the unmarked graves at the African American Burial Grounds featuring a multimedia installation called “Remembrance as Resistance: Preserving Black Narratives”.
- Chicago, Illinois: The Chicago Architecture Center will host a tour at Oak Woods Cemetery focused on Black Chicagoans who played crucial roles during the Civil War.
- La Grange, Kentucky: The Oldham County History Center is having a cemetery walk at the Historic African American Cemetery and a research presentation on identifying the hundreds of Black men who fought in the Civil War from Oldham County.
- St. James, Louisiana: RISE St. James will be holding their second annual commemoration for their ancestors currently occupied by Formosa Plastics. The ceremony will also be live-streamed.
- Bethesda, Maryland: The Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition is planning an in-person Juneteenth celebration and protest to protect the historic Moses African Cemetery in Bethesda, Maryland.
- Rockville, Maryland: There will be a cleanup event at Haiti Cemetery, which was founded by freed slaves and their descendants. Volunteers will be focusing on weeding and picking up litter.
- Amherst, Massachusetts: The first Juneteenth celebration in the city will honor Black soldiers who fought in the Civil War with a ceremony at West Cemetery.
- Nantucket, Massachusetts: The Nantucket Equity Advocates are hosting a Juneteenth celebration and walking tour at the island’s historic Colored Cemetery.
- Hackensack, New Jersey: The historic Gethsemane Cemetery in Little Ferry will be opened for tours of the graves of formerly enslaved people and will have historian Dr. Arnold Brown onsite to answer questions.
- Manhattan, New York City, New York: The annual celebration at the African Burial Ground National Monument will include a laying of flowers, singing, and a discussion about the importance of Juneteenth. It will also be live-streamed on Facebook.
- Queens, New York City, New York: There will be a dedication and plaque installation for an emancipated woman named Millie Tunnell buried in Maple Grove Cemetery in Kew Gardens. The event will be live-streamed and include a lecture and concert.
- Rye, New York: Friends of the African American Cemetery are hosting a celebration during the re-opening of the African American section of Greenwood Union Cemetery, which was previously closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio: After over a century, there will be a ceremony to mark the graves of formerly enslaved people in Oakwood Cemetery. The event will also inform locals about the city’s role as a component of the Underground Railroad.
- Austin, Texas: There will be a dedication ceremony and block party celebrating Austin’s oldest Freedom Colonies and the first historical marker at Burditt Prairie Cemetery, the oldest Black cemetery in the city.
- Austin, Texas: In another neighborhood of Austin, there is a Juneteenth initiative at Oakwood Cemetery and Evergreen Cemetery to install QR codes near graves that will direct visitors to the person’s biography.
- Brackettville, Texas: The Seminole Indian Scouts Cemetery Association will be holding a virtual event on the direct descendants of the Seminole Negro Indian Scouts who escaped slavery.
- Edinburg, Texas: A Juneteenth memorial observation and party will be held at Restlawn Cemetery and other locations in the city.
- Houston, Texas: There will be both in-person and virtual events at Olivewood Cemetery, including headstone cleaning and landscaping, tours of the cemetery, and discussions on community-based research on the formerly enslaved people buried there.
- Charlottesville, Virginia: The Jefferson-Madison Regional Library will host a virtual talk on the recently discovered unmarked graves outside the enclosure of the cemetery at Pen Park.
- Dumfries, Virginia: There will be a Juneteetth parade that ends at the Dumfries Slave Cemetery, followed by music and candlelight vigil in honor of the ancestors buried there.
- Beckley, West Virginia: The Beckley Community United Methodist Church is planning a Juneteenth celebration at Hunter’s Cemetery.