National network to connect researchers and concerned citizens working to preserve historical Black cemeteries

Across the nation, a number of African American burial grounds and cemeteries have been lost to history, neglected and even paved over during urban development. Now a national network for historical Black cemeteries has launched to raise awareness about the history and present condition of such sacred places to ensure what remains is preserved.

Graphic says, "Black Cemetery Network"

The Black Cemetery Network consists of a virtual archive and map of historical Black cemetery sites, a research portal and a news and advocacy hub. It is led by USF Anthropology Professor and department Chair Antoinette Jackson, who said there are likely tens of thousands of such cemeteries across the nation.

“These cemeteries contain stories about people, places and families that are often missing from the larger public narrative,” Jackson said. “The Black Cemetery Network will connect people and communities to these cemeteries and forgotten histories in order to create a living archive that facilitates research, advocacy and collaboration.”

The network and website launched on June 15. Its goal is to not only provide valuable information to educate the public and further research endeavors, but link community members from across the country working to uncover and protect this history.

Individuals and groups working to identify and preserve lost burial sites can submit their historical Black cemetery to the network and have it archived on the website.

“There are many individual projects and people who are already working as Black cemetery site advocates, and through the network they can help us visually represent the issue of Black cemetery erasure and show the scope of the problem in a national context,” said Kaleigh Hoyt, a USF anthropology doctoral student and creative director and research assistant for the Black Cemetery Network.

Historically segregated, African American burial grounds from Tampa Bay to Manhattan to Tulsa were cemented over throughout the 20th century in the name of urban development. If these sacred sites weren’t paved over, many went into disrepair as they didn’t receive the same dedicated resources as other burial grounds or were forgotten as cities grew around them and local communities were displaced.

A greater groundswell of support to document and preserve such places began with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement and introduction of the African-American Burial Grounds Network Act in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018. This year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill establishing a committee that will further investigate Florida’s forgotten African American cemeteries.

“The state of Florida is taking a lead on this issue, and universities such as USF are really putting an emphasis on this type of work to ensure such cultural and historic places are not forgotten,” Jackson said.

Jackson and Hoyt are also working on the African American Burial Grounds & Remembering Project. This USF-funded project focuses on identifying and preserving Black cemeteries in Tampa Bay. It consists of USF faculty, staff and graduate students from fields such as anthropology, business, English and the arts.

Along with community partners, the team is conducting interviews with people associated with historical Black cemeteries to record oral histories, examine historical archives to identify individuals buried and start community conversations on how to best remember this traumatic history today.

The project’s focus centers on Zion Cemetery, one of the first African American cemeteries in Tampa Bay, located beneath roads, warehouses and a public housing complex just north of downtown Tampa, and St. Petersburg’s Oaklawn Cemetery complex, which consists of three cemeteries that lie under parking lots at Tropicana Field. Based on research gathered, the team will produce the first digital story map focused on these local African American cemeteries that combine oral histories, photographs, videos and archival information.

“With this network, we hope to show strength in numbers by taking advantage of the expertise already working on uncovering historical Black cemeteries locally and elevate that work nationally, while having others contribute to it so their projects are visible,” Jackson said.

Learn more at: https://blackcemeterynetwork.org.

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