The U.S. Senate unanimously passed legislation that would better protect historic African American cemeteries.
The measure also paves the way for the creation of an African American Burial Grounds Network.
“We know that for too long in too many parts of our country, Black families were blocked from burying their loved ones in White cemeteries,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said.
“These men and women were freed slaves, civil rights champions, veterans, mothers, fathers, workers in communities. We need to act now before these sites are lost to the ravages of time or development.”
Initially introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2019 by Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.) and Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), the bill primarily addresses at-risk Black cemeteries in South Carolina.
Still, it authorizes the Department of the Interior to conduct a thorough investigation of African American burial grounds across the country.
According to the Smithsonian magazine report, the study would “lay the groundwork for the network, allowing experts to coordinate research efforts, create a nationwide database of Black cemeteries, and receive grant funding.”
Sen. Brown and now ex-Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) later introduced the measure in the Senate. It now heads back to the House for a formal vote.
The action is yet another recent legislative attempt to honor and preserve Black burial grounds.
In 2019, then-Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), along with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), were joined by Reps. Gregory Meeks, Yvette Clarke, and Adriano Espaillat (all of New York), and announced the African Burial Ground International Memorial Museum and Education Center Act’s reintroduction.
That legislation would establish a museum and education center at the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan.
This site currently holds the remains of an estimated 15,000 free and enslaved Africans and early-generation African Americans from the colonial era.
The National Park Service would manage the museum in consultation with the African Burial Ground Advisory Council, which would be established by the legislation.
“The African Burial Ground is culturally and historically significant to New York and the nation. The establishment of a museum and an education center at this cemetery will illuminate the plight, courage, and humanity of the free and enslaved Africans who helped create New York,” Sen. Schumer told NNPA Newswire in 2019.
“As a nation, we must always remember the tremendous burdens and afflictions experienced by those who were brought here in bondage, and who fought (for generations) against impossible odds to achieve the full measure of dignity and equality and justice that they were due. I am proud to cosponsor this legislation, and I urge my colleagues to pass this bill and for the president to sign it into law.”
The African American Burial Grounds initiative would provide grant opportunities and technical assistance to local communities as they work to recover and preserve those historic sites.
According to the letter signed by more than 60 organizations dedicated to cultural heritage and preservation, cemeteries are places of tribute and memory, connecting communities with their past.
“Unfortunately, many African American burial grounds from both before and after the Civil War are in a state of disarray or inaccessibility,” the letter stated.
“By creating a national network, the African American Burial Grounds Network Act would help re-discover the existence of burial grounds ahead of commercial development, helping to avoid disturbances that create distress and heartache in communities. Preserving and protecting these sacred sites, and the stories they tell is an integral part of our American heritage.”