Crowdsourced Database Will Locate the Burial Sites of Forgotten US Slaves

slave grave database

Image cour­tesy of Nation­al Bur­ial Data­base of Enslaved Amer­i­cans

The sto­ries are infre­quent but deeply com­pelling: one recent news item in the AP’s The Big Sto­ry describes the bones of 14 peo­ple from the 18th or ear­ly 19th cen­tu­ry, dis­cov­ered in Albany, NY, “wrapped in shrouds, buried in pine box­es and—over centuries—forgotten.” Sev­en adults, five infants, and two chil­dren, soon to be “pub­li­cal­ly memo­ri­al­ized and [re]buried in per­son­al­ized box­es beside promi­nent fam­i­lies in old Albany.”

Over the 11 years since the bones’ dis­cov­ery by con­struc­tion work­ers, sci­en­tists have been able to piece togeth­er clues about what these lives were like: marked by con­stant toil and phys­i­cal hard­ship. Genet­ic mark­ers, and bro­ken bones, notched and miss­ing teeth, and arthrit­ic joints offer the only means of iden­ti­fy­ing the remains. A gran­ite head­stone donat­ed to the new gravesite will read, “Here lies the remains of 14 souls known only to God. Enslaved in life, they are slaves no more.”

In 1991, many miles south in low­er Man­hat­tan, a find of the remains of 419 peo­ple even­tu­al­ly gave rise to an even more impres­sive memo­r­i­al and muse­um, the African Bur­ial Ground Nation­al Mon­u­ment, a reminder of not only the slave labor that built New York City, but also of the peo­ple bought and sold in the once bustling slave mar­ket at what is now Wall Street.


Cre­ative Com­mons pho­to by Bruce Guthrie

Memo­ri­als like this one and the recent Albany bur­ial site do not change the facts or right the wrongs of his­to­ry, but they do make vis­i­ble lives and his­to­ries long buried and for­got­ten. “Among the scars left by the her­itage of slav­ery,” writes Edward Roth­stein at The New York Times, “one of the great­est is an absence: where are the memo­ri­als, ceme­ter­ies, archi­tec­tur­al struc­tures or stur­dy sanc­tu­ar­ies that typ­i­cal­ly pro­vide the ground for a people’s mem­o­ry?” This is pre­cise­ly the ques­tion San­dra Arnold is now ask­ing, in a very lit­er­al sense, for a project called The Nation­al Bur­ial Data­base of Enslaved Amer­i­cans (NBDEA).

A Grad­u­ate Fel­low at Brown Uni­ver­si­ty, Arnold found­ed the Peri­win­kle Ini­tia­tive, “a pub­lic human­i­ties and edu­ca­tion ini­tia­tive ded­i­cat­ed to pre­serv­ing cul­tur­al her­itage asso­ci­at­ed with enslaved Amer­i­cans.” The NBDEA—Periwinkle’s core project in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty, the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Human­i­ties, and the 1772 Foun­da­tion—aims, writes Arnold at The New York Times, to “be the first nation­al repos­i­to­ry of infor­ma­tion on the grave sites of indi­vid­u­als who died while enslaved or after they were eman­ci­pat­ed.”

The grave sites The NBDEA com­piles will depend in some part on the pub­lic: “Any­one who comes to the web­site will even­tu­al­ly be able to sub­mit infor­ma­tion about these places and con­duct search­es.” Cur­rent­ly, the site remains in devel­op­ment, unavail­able for pub­lic search­es, but users can make pre­lim­i­nary sub­mis­sions. Arnold describes the process of sift­ing through the sub­mis­sions she has received as “painful.”

Bur­ial grounds that should be revered spaces… instead are cov­ered by play­grounds and apart­ment com­plex­es. I have learned that many grave sites of for­mer­ly enslaved Amer­i­cans are aban­doned, undoc­u­ment­ed, des­e­crat­ed by the asphalt of “devel­op­ment,” and lack any type of memo­ri­al­iza­tion or recog­ni­tion. The bur­ial grounds are often found inci­den­tal­ly by devel­op­ers under parks and office build­ings, and for many of the sites, oral his­to­ry is their only source of doc­u­men­ta­tion.

Just such an oral his­to­ry pre­served the unmarked gravesite of one of Arnold’s ances­tors in her home­town in West Ten­nessee. Alli­son Meier at Hyper­al­ler­gic points to some specif­i­cal­ly trou­bled sites like those Arnold describes, includ­ing “a slave ceme­tery… bull­dozed in Hous­ton,” anoth­er “cov­ered with asphalt in Atlanta,” and a third “found below a Harlem bus depot.”

Arnold hopes that record­ing and memo­ri­al­iz­ing these “sacred spaces… can con­tribute to heal­ing, under­stand­ing and poten­tial­ly even rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.” Addi­tion­al­ly, she cites a “prag­mat­ic” ratio­nale for the project, since “bur­ial grounds are valu­able resources for schol­ars and his­to­ri­ans, serv­ing as road maps for genealog­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal research.”

The project presents a tremen­dous oppor­tu­ni­ty for the many thou­sands of cit­i­zen his­to­ri­ans scat­tered across the coun­try to come togeth­er and fill in the absences in our his­tor­i­cal mem­o­ry; and the cen­tral­ized data­base will also draw more atten­tion to the few memo­ri­als that do exist, many of which, writes Meier, “are often stag­ger­ing­ly small in rela­tion to the num­ber of lives they remem­ber.” She refers to the exam­ple of a “minia­ture mass grave mon­u­ment” in Mem­phis’ Elm­wood Cemetary (above), a “sin­gle stone [that] memo­ri­al­izes over 300 slaves who died between 1852 and 1865.”

Like The Freedman’s Bureau Project, a recent online data­base of 1.5 mil­lion his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments relat­ed to slav­ery, The NBDEA will fur­ther his­tori­cize and human­ize “over­looked lives,” writes Arnold, that “are an inex­tri­ca­ble part of the his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive of our coun­try.”

Can can vis­it The Nation­al Bur­ial Data­base of Enslaved Amer­i­cans here.

via Hyper­al­ler­gic

Relat­ed Con­tent:

1.5 Mil­lion Slav­ery Era Doc­u­ments Will Be Dig­i­tized, Help­ing African Amer­i­cans to Learn About Their Lost Ances­tors

Freed Slave Writes Let­ter to For­mer Mas­ter: You Owe Us $11,680 for 52 Years of Unpaid Labor (1865)

The Anti-Slav­ery Alpha­bet: 1846 Book Teach­es Kids the ABCs of Slavery’s Evils

Visu­al­iz­ing Slav­ery: The Map Abra­ham Lin­coln Spent Hours Study­ing Dur­ing the Civ­il War

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Rho says:

    ..Excel­lent arti­cle..!

  • kermmit allen says:

    Out­stand­ing and Edu­ca­tion­al. All the mem­bers of the Race need to Read. I have emailed to all of my rel­a­tives.
    Please include me in your future arti­cles via email

    Ker­mit D. Allen USAF Ret. in Sacra­men­to CA.

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