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SLAVE'S FORGOTTEN BURIAL SITES, MARKED ONLINE
March 18, 2013, 1:42 p.m.
By SARAH MASLIN NIR
They have been bulldozed over by shopping centers, crept over by weeds and forgotten by time. Across the country, from Lower Manhattan to the Deep South, are unmarked slave burial sites, often discovered only by chance or by ignominious circumstance as when construction crews accidentally exhume bodies when building a shopping mall.
Compounding the problem of preserving and locating slave graveyards, there is no comprehensive list of where they are and who lies within them. The situation troubled Sandra Arnold, 50, a history student at the School of Professional and Continuing Studies at Fordham University, who traces her ancestry to slaves in Tennessee.
“The fact that they lie in these unmarked abandoned sites,” Ms. Arnold said, “it’s almost like that they are kind of vanishing from the American consciousness.
”Last month, Fordham introduced Ms. Arnold’s proposed solution, the Burial Database Project of Enslaved African Americans, a Web portal that invites visitors to input information about the whereabouts and residents of slave graveyards across the country. The goal is to create a user-generated database of these sites all over the United States.
Though there are other similar projects, most are conducted on a regional level, or do not focus specifically on places slaves were buried. Find a Grave, a database used by many tombstone hobbyists and amateur genealogists, lists hundreds of thousands of plots, including those belonging to slaves. In 2001, in an effort to avoid disturbing burial grounds during a property boom, Prince William County in Virginia began collecting locations. There are also private initiatives in Maryland to catalog all of the estimated 6,000 to 9,000 slave burial sites in the state.
But still slave graveyards risk being trampled by time and construction. One of the most notable examples was in Lower Manhattan, where construction of a federal office building was halted in 1991 after the discovery of bones 24 feet below the surface. Just 419 bodies were discovered, though estimates of how many free and enslaved blacks were buried there range from 10,000 to 20,000. The African Burial Ground, as it was named, is now a national historic landmark.
Just last year, construction was held up for a new Walmart in Florence, Ala., after local residents protested that it would encroach on hidden burial sites.
“There is certainly a very important national need; it’s more than just an academic exercise,” said Lynn Rainville, a research professor at Sweet Briar College in Virginia and an adviser to the database.
For Ms. Arnold it is also personal. The idea was born two years ago after she visited a Tennessee cemetery where her great-grandfather, who was born a slave, is buried. It was adrift in the middle of a field, she said, hardly the hallowed space that cemeteries typically are. “The fact that enslaved African-Americans don’t have that sort of dignity,” she said, “it bothered me.
”The project’s ambition — to be a comprehensive database for the country — is hampered because slaves were often perfunctorily buried, and because of a historical quirk: headstones were a luxury in many Southern areas, and both enslaved and free people were often buried with plain stone markers or none at all.
“A huge number of old cemeteries, even from the 19th century, are simply lost in the landscape,” Eric G. Grundset, the director of the Library of the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution, who has traveled the country researching the legacy of blacks in the war, said in an e-mail. “Memory is usually the primary source for locating such spots, so this project will rely very heavily on that for results.
"The database is still in its infancy, with just over a dozen entries uploaded since it began about a month ago. Irma Watkins-Owens, an associate professor of history and African-American studies at Fordham, is a co-director, along with advisers from Yale, Emory University and the College of William and Mary.
Ms. Arnold, who also works as a secretary for the African studies department at Fordham, said it was entirely dependent upon word of mouth for contributions. Researchers with reams of information may find the system somewhat unwieldy since it requires data to be inputted piece by piece.
Still, the news of the database excited preservationists like Lisa Martin Sanders for its potential. Two years ago, Ms. Sanders rediscovered and began to rehabilitate a rundown cemetery where her ancestors and an estimated 1,500 other slaves and free black people were buried in Sanford, N.C., now called the Black Heritage Community Cemetery. She is working on her next.
“I thought it was awfully sad that people can get thrown away,” Ms. Sanders said. “If we have somewhere we can go and actually look and research this information, we can better understand who we are,” she added. “If we lose that, where are we?”
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PLEASE COPY THE LINK BELOW TO VIEW THE WRAL TV 5 STORY REGARDING THE BLACK HERITAGE COMMUNITY CEMETERY.
Woman reclaims neglected slave cemetery from Sanford woods
At least 1,500 graves, most belonging to slaves, are in a cemetery in Lee County that dates to the early 1800s.
Sanford, N.C. — A small band of volunteers is working to restore a Lee County cemetery that dates to the early 1800s and contains the graves of hundreds of slaves.
The burial ground, near the Buffalo Presbyterian Church on Carthage Street, had fallen into disrepair in recent decades and was gradually overtaken by ivy and a pine forest.
"It just hurt my heart," said Lisa Martin Sanders, who stumbled upon the cemetery last April.
Sanders and her aunt were looking for the grave of W.B. Wicker, who founded a school in Sanford many years ago. They wandered the area for a couple hours before peering into the woods.
"I've lived in Sanford all my life. I never knew there were graves here," she said.
At least 1,500 African-Americans are buried in the cemetery, but Sanders said the total could be double that.
"I would say a majority of them buried here are slaves," she said, noting some marked graves predate the Civil War.
Property records show the cemetery belonged to five predominantly black churches, two of which no longer exist, she said.
After receiving permission from the other three churches, Sanders and two friends, Beatrice Heck Adams and Charlie Rascoe, cleared brush from the graveyard and cut down several trees to reclaim the site.
"These people belonged to someone, and they were not able to come here and visit or anything. They were being dishonored," Sanders said.
She is trying to create a nonprofit to raise funds to maintain the cemetery, which she hopes to rechristen Black Heritage Community Cemetery, including erecting a wrought-iron fence.
"This is a history lesson. It is for me," she said.
Reporter: Bryan Mims
Photographer: Michael Joyner
Web Editor: Matthew Burns
Copyright 2012 by Capitol Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
"A special thanks to Bryan Mims, Reporter for WRAL Channel 5 News who introduced the Triangle and surrounding areas to the Black Heritage Community Cemetery. Thanks for such a great interview!"
"A special thank you to Mrs. Margaret Murchison of 105.5 WWGP/WFJA for introducing WRAL Channel 5 News to this amazing story!"
Copyright 2012 Sanford Herald. All rights reserved.
BLACK HERITAGE COMMUNITY CEMETERY: Official nonprofit will back cemetery restoration by BILLY BALL, Sanford Herald, March 3, 2012 | SANFORD — An ongoing project to restore a once-abandoned Sanford cemetery is on its way to being an official nonprofit venture.
A trio of locals behind the lion's share of restorations at the traditionally black cemetery off of Carthage Street, which is expected to include a number of deceased slaves, are in the process of launching The Heritage Foundation. The nonprofit will back cleanup at the newly named Black Heritage Community Cemetery.
Locals Lisa Martin Sanders, Beatrice Heck Adams and Charlie Rascoe have been diligently clearing the landlocked cemetery behind nearby Buffalo Presbyterian Church since late last year, a project that could take weeks more of work to remove overgrown woods and ivy, as well as identify what appears to be thousands of graves, some stacked on top of each other, according to Sanders.
"It's like an archaeological find," Sanders said. "It's very difficult to weave your way through there and not mess up things."
As it stands today, Sanders' crew has driven numbered stakes into the ground to mark obvious grave sites where the earth is sunken.
The cemetery was sold to the local churches in the early 1900s, although it is believed to have been used prior to the Civil War. Sanford educator W.B. Wicker is among the most prominent of the locals buried among the gravestones, some of which are unmarked or heavily weathered from years of neglect.
Sanders said her team has received offers from archaeologists to help with the tagging and restoration, as well as offers from area funeral homes to provide dirt to fill in sunken graves.
Thus far, the cash for the work has come from Sanders, although her team is seeking donations to help out.
For Sanders, what started as a learning expedition into Sanford history has morphed into something altogether different.
"It's a passion now," Sanders said. "We want to do it and do it right."
All tax-deductible donations for the cleanup should be mailed to: The Heritage Foundation, c/o Black Heritage Community Cemetery, P.O. Box 4982, Sanford, N.C. 27331. Adams said anyone donating $100 or more will receive a copy of the Black Heritage Community Cemetery Volume II history book, written and published by Sanders' team with history and pictures of the cemetery. A copy of the book can also be purchased for $20 by contacting Sanders at (919) 721-8128. Copyright 2012 Sanford Herald. All rights reserved.