Memory  /  Longread

When Black History Is Unearthed, Who Gets to Speak for the Dead?

Efforts to rescue African American burial grounds and remains have exposed deep conflicts over inheritance and representation.

Underneath America lies an apartheid of the departed. Violence done to the living is usually done to their dead, who are dug up, mowed down, and built on. In the Jim Crow South, Black people paid taxes that went to building and erecting Confederate monuments. They buried their own dead with the help of mutual-aid societies, fraternal organizations, and insurance policies. Cemeteries work on something like a pyramid scheme: payments for new plots cover the cost of maintaining old ones. “Perpetual care” is, everywhere, notional, but that notion relies on an accumulation of capital that decades of disenfranchisement and discrimination have made impossible in many Black communities, even as racial terror also drove millions of people from the South during the Great Migration, leaving their ancestors behind. It’s amazing that Geer survived. Durham’s other Black cemeteries were run right over. “Hickstown’s part of the freeway,” Gonzalez-Garcia told me, counting them off. “Violet Park is a church parking lot.”

What would it mean for the future of the United States to mark and honor these places? In 2019, the four-hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the first captive Africans in Virginia, members of Congress from North Carolina and Virginia, inspired by volunteer organizations like the Friends of Geer, introduced the African-American Burial Grounds Network Act. Last year, an amended version passed unanimously in the Senate. It doesn’t come with any money, but if it’s enacted it will authorize the National Park Service to coördinate efforts to identify, preserve, and interpret places like Geer, Hickstown, and Violet Park. Federal legislation might also provide some legal clarity. A few years ago, a Geer neighbor took down a giant tree; as it fell, it crushed a row of headstones. They’re pinned there still. There’s little the Friends can do about that: they don’t own the land. “Legally, this place is considered abandoned,” Gonzalez-Garcia explained. “The city hasn’t traced anyone who’s inherited the title.” The Friends of Geer can’t find a titleholder, either, and not for lack of trying. Their work is guided by the principle that descendants (“people with bodies in the ground”) should decide what to do with the cemetery. They’ve so far found about fifty. They’re still looking.

Meanwhile, that same principle—that descendants decide—lies at the center of a widening controversy about human remains in the collections of universities and anatomical and anthropological museums. It has led to a proposal for another piece of federal legislation modelled on the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, NAGPRA, but for African American graves—an AAGPRA. This spring, in an essay published in Nature, three young Black archeologists called for, among other things, a halt to the unethical study of all human remains in the United States until those of people descended from Africans can be identified, and descendants found and consulted. Another group of Black archeologists argued that, on the contrary, suspending research would only further widen the gap between what scientists know about people of African and European ancestry, leading to worse public-health outcomes for African Americans, who are already adversely affected by a history of medical mistreatment and poor representation in everything from clinical trials to the human-genome project. Antiracist orthodoxy has it that everything’s either antiracist or racist: there is no other position. This anguished disagreement reveals the limits of that premise.


Recovering the Black Past through African American Cemeteries

THEMATIC CONTEXT: Broader concerns about representation and inheritance (of land and responsibility of maintenance), related to the movement for African American graves-protection efforts nationwide (including the East End Cemetery as well as sites in New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina).