Black Advocates Take Ownership of Ancestors’ History; Legislation Could Help
Editor's note: This story was updated Feb. 25, 2022, to correct the spelling of Julie Schablitsky's name.
LOUDOUN COUNTY, Va. — On a windy Thursday morning in mid-February, the Rev. Michelle Thomas walked up a winding gravel path surrounded by dirt, broken tree branches and mostly brown grass.
The path led to the African American Burial Ground for the Enslaved at Belmont, a 2.75-acre site formerly known as the Belmont Slave Cemetery. In 2017 the Toll Brothers building company donated the site to the nonprofit Thomas founded, the Loudoun Freedom Center, which works to preserve African American historical sites in the county.
Scattered across the burial grounds lie rocks: Some were used as headstones for the enslaved people, and research shows that others found on the grounds had been used to make row beds and cornerstones of houses, Thomas said. To date, only 44 headstones have been identified.
Thomas suspects more bodies are buried, especially since the cemetery is near the former Belmont Plantation. In the early 1800s, Ludwell Lee, a Virginia lawyer and the second son of U.S. founding father and Declaration of Independence signatory Richard Henry Lee, owned the plantation.
“When you look at a census record, and you find the people who were enslaved here, they don't have a last name,” Thomas said. “Oh, Young Jim. Yeah, Little Billy, Rippin’, Bossy, those names. How do we find out who's connected to that person? We can't. It’s impossible.”
Aside from searching for available records, local decisions to extend highways or plan development projects near or on the grounds can damage artifacts or headstones. This makes it even more difficult to research and preserve the land, Thomas said. “We need stronger protections.”
For centuries, African American cemeteries have suffered abandonment, loss or destruction. Many were ignored or plowed under because of systemic and institutional racist practices that disregarded the burial grounds, leaving descendant communities without sites to honor or visit their relatives.
Though some states acted earlier, the pandemic's disproportionate toll on Black people and the protests against racial injustice that followed the 2020 murder of George Floyd fueled public—and politicians'—interest in preserving the cemeteries.
A handful of states have considered or passed bills over the past several years to protect, restore or document Black cemeteries, and at least three states are discussing legislation this session. From 2016 to 2021, Arkansas, Florida and Virginia, along with the District of Columbia, enacted legislation that provided funding for the cemeteries or created committees to study the preservation of cemeteries. Bipartisan legislation in Congress could provide a boost in financial and other resources that organizations need.
Advocates and experts told Stateline the resources are necessary, but they also demand that Black history be included in the telling of American history.
“Whether it’s about protecting the cemetery or being in a position to tell one’s own story, this is about human dignity. And the fact that people have to struggle for human dignity means they’re struggling against somebody who would deny it,” said Michael Blakey, the National Endowment for the Humanities professor of anthropology, Africana studies and American studies at the College of William and Mary.
“And White supremacy in this country is about the denial of African American human dignity,” he said. “And sometimes it’s manifested in something like a road the state wants to run through a Black cemetery.”
Over the past five or so years, the public and media outlets have become more interested in the history of the burial grounds, said Julie Schablitsky, chief archaeologist for the Maryland Department of Transportation and president of the Society for Historical Archaeology.
When archaeologists conduct research into the grounds, they don’t know what stories will be resurrected, she said. And, she added, the repeated tragedies of police brutality against Black men, the Black Lives Matter movement and “political upheaval” over President Donald Trump’s term in office created a renewed interest in Black Americans’ stories and consideration of Black cemeteries and historical sites.
This legislative session, lawmakers in at least three states are considering measures to preserve Black burial grounds. A bill in New Hampshire would require local government officials to provide reasonable access to records and sites to the descendants and descendant community to identify and examine the graves. The bill also would require the descendants to be consulted before a grave is disturbed, removed or identified.
In Florida, state Sen. Janet Cruz, a Democrat, introduced a measure that would create a program within the state’s Division of Historical Resources to research and identify abandoned cemeteries, develop maintenance guidance and prioritize placement of historical markers for abandoned or lost African American cemeteries. Additionally, the bill would establish a program advisory council appointed by the secretary of state. If the bill becomes law, the legislature would give funds to the University of South Florida’s Black Cemetery Network. Cruz did not respond to requests for comment.
Cruz’s bill has not advanced, but a similar bill in the House has been scheduled for a second reading. Another bill in Florida would encourage schools to teach students about the local history of African American cemeteries as part of the current curriculum.
Virginia enacted a law in 2018 that allows localities or individuals to apply for funding to restore particular African American cemeteries. Since then, additional laws have made more cemeteries across the state eligible to apply for the funds. Over the past three years, 22 cemeteries in 18 cities and counties have received funding, according to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. In 2019 and 2020, the African American Burial Ground for the Enslaved at Belmont received funding.
Virginia legislators again this year have filed bills related to the cemeteries. A bill that would preserve burial grounds in Isle of Wight, Prince George and Surry counties has been tabled. Another bill would allow cemeteries established before 1948, instead of before 1900, to qualify for funding.
Since 2019, legislation to preserve cemeteries nationwide has been introduced in Congress. This month, Ohio Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and Utah Republican U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney introduced a proposal that would allocate $3 million over five years to create a grant program through the National Park Service to “identify, interpret, research, preserve, and record unmarked, previously abandoned, underserved, and other African-American burial grounds.”
The property owner would have to give consent, or an individual, nonprofit organization or government official could send in a request to the Park Service to receive grant funding. The bill has been referred to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. A similar bipartisan bill has been introduced in the House. No action has been taken.
Realities of Preservation
Thomas, an engineer, did not set out to be an oral historian or the keeper of a cemetery. After accepting a call to preach in 2006, she planned to build a new church. She found 5 acres of land near a former slave plantation in Lansdowne, Virginia, the town where she lived, and conducted a feasibility study on whether the land had legal impediments or accessibility issues.
She learned that enslaved people were buried there, some covered up by a swimming pool, she said. This led her to search for other burial grounds in the area, discover more history and help narrate the stories to community members, students and families. Eventually, her research of old site records helped her find the Belmont site, about 3.2 miles away from Lansdowne.
She said she didn’t prepare for what would be needed to maintain the site, such as countless hours of volunteer work and training, land battles with developers and mental exhaustion. Then, in 2020, she had to endure the drowning death of her 16-year-old son. She buried him in the historic cemetery.
Before his death, Fitz Alexander Campbell Thomas would volunteer at the cemetery with his mom. Thomas thought the best way to honor his life was to bury him with his ancestors, she said.
“I can make sure that his memory will never be forgotten. I can tell his stories, and he can be with his ancestors,” Thomas said.
Working on preservation projects is a constant process of learning and unlearning—whether it’s deciphering the symbols on headstones or learning that some Black people could read and write in the 1800s, said Lisa Fager, executive director of Mount Zion/Female Union Band Historic Memorial Park, which oversees two cemeteries in D.C.
But preserving the land to tell stories has been challenging, Fager added, including finding volunteers, getting the site listed on the National Register of Historic Places and local city maps, and securing regular funding to locate more graves, for example.
“We don’t have any resources right now. We’re all volunteer,” Fager said. “[We] go around and look for the flowers that grow every year, the daffodils, because they’ll be markers. ... Those are the things that are helping us find people right now.”
Arguing for Equity
For Louise Stevenson, a retired educator and trustee of the Union Foundation, the nonprofit that supports Union Baptist Church and oversees two historic cemeteries in Cincinnati, Ohio, the process to maintain the two sites and the cemeteries’ records has been expensive.
The Union Baptist Church has paid about $40,000 annually for the upkeep of its cemeteries, which isn’t viable for the church, she said. So, the foundation searched for other funds. From state and local programs, they have received about $30,000 for cleanup projects, but more resources are needed. The church has more than 50,000 burial records dating back to the 1860s.
Although Stevenson is excited for the possibility of federal legislation, she’s wary of the process and eligibility requirement that would be created to apply for funding.
“If you ask for money from the preservation or grant committee or organization, they want to know where are you going to [store these papers] until you start doing the work, and how are they going to be done? Do you meet these requirements to be historic?” Stevenson said. “Well, no, we don’t. We don’t have the money to do that. We need money from the very beginning to save these documents.”
The experiences of Thomas, Fager and Stevenson aren’t uncommon, said Alexandra Jones, an archaeologist and executive director of Archaeology in Community, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that facilitates the study and public understanding of archaeological heritage. Some communities or groups struggle to find archaeologists, understand preservation or protection laws, write grants, apply for historic preservation status or simply find volunteers for cleanups, she said.
“It’s a lot that is required to do this work,” Jones said. “When you talk about equity, it’s definitely an issue there because you shouldn’t have to fight that hard to do that much in order to argue that your history, the people you’re associated with, your ancestors, your direct descendants are important enough not be [knocked down] for a highway, a factory to be built or a playground to be put over top of them.”
Scientists and archaeologists need to involve Black descendants, historians and community members in the process and the storytelling, she added.
“A lot of us are White archeologists doing Black history and, because of that, we're limited and we have a bias,” Schablitsky said. “As an individual, the way that I pay my reparations is I give my power away by giving it to the descendant communities directly.”
The Belmont cemetery may be the resting place for the dead, but it is also a place for education, culture and heritage, Thomas said, and she envisions the grounds as a place for statues and an outdoor, interactive museum.
A supporter of the federal legislation, she hopes it opens doors for “redressing faulty curriculum and history books” to allow students and other visitors the opportunity to learn about the missing pieces of our uncomfortable yet true history.
“History evolves, and more is known about it over time. There have been wonderful books that are wrong,” Thomas added. “We are going through a reckoning of having our African American history now included in the greater context of what U.S. history is. … So there’s always going to be a level of discomfort. [Black people] have been discomforted for 400 years. It’s time to share the load.”