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Anthropologist: Building Over African American Cemeteries Not Just A Southern Problem

This 1901 map shows how graves were laid out in Tampa's Zion Cemetery.
Once committed to paper and on property records, historic black cemeteries such as Zion Cemetery in Tampa can disappear over time. The reasons are all related to Reconstruction and racism, an anthropologist says. Credit: Tampa Bay History Center

Tampa isn't the only place where long-lost African American graveyards have been found.

Although two have been discovered in the bay area, and more sites are being investigated, the problem has a national scope, says an expert in lost black burial grounds.

Lynn Rainville studies African American cemeteries and is an anthropology professor and director of instutitonal history at Virginia's Washington and Lee University.

“Historic African American burial grounds have been overlooked, vandalized, bodies have been robbed out of grave for medical cadavers and then built upon across the country, in the North and the South,” Rainville said. “It is not just a Southern issue. It is directly connected to the residue of racism in the past and in the present.”

Professor Lynn Rainville's photo portrait
Lynn Rainville of Washington and Lee University in Virginia studies lost African American cemeteries. Credit: Washington and Lee University

The discoveries of lost graves and the public discussion about them, in fact, has drawn attention in Washington, D.C.

“Given all of these conversations the last couple of years on historic African American burial grounds and their neglect and destruction in some cases, a congressman … has co-sponsored a bill to create a network to protect African-American graveyards,” Rainville said.

That bill, sponsored by North Carolina Congresswoman Alma Adams, would create an African-American Burial Grounds Network within the National Park Service. The network would provide grants to find, identify and preserve black cemeteries.

Two black congressmen from Florida, Alcee Hastings and Al Lawson, have signed on as co-sponsors.

A Senate version was introduced last month.

The phenomenon of a cemetery serving a large community just disappearing into the mists of time seems bewildering, but Rainville said the history of Reconstruction and the black experience in America provide answers.

“The trend for the middle band of the South, or from Virginia to Mississippi is the way I would phrase it, would be that after the Civil War, with emancipation and freedom, in the first couple of decades, black families are trying to catch up with wage earning and educational opportunities,” she explained. “But then as Jim Crow laws are enacted, there's outmigration from the South. Large numbers of African Americans leave the South for the North.

“And that has an immediate impact on cemeteries, because clearly you leave behind cemeteries,” she continued. “And that means as the generations passed, there are fewer and fewer people who know where these sites are, who can help maintain them, and then who are visiting them on a regular basis. In my research in Virginia, a lot of times I was working with third- and fourth-generation family members who themselves were looking for their old family cemeteries because their parents or their grandparents had long since left the South.”

Without regular maintenance or family members to visit the graves, cemeteries can become neglected and overgrown. Some are just swallowed up by nature.

“They can be very hard to find,” Rainville said. “In fact, usually the people who know where they are, it's hunters, because hunters are the ones at least in rural areas who are regularly crisscrossing the landscape and running across either uninscribed stones, or heavily overgrown cemeteries.”

For 20th century black graveyards, the lack of money, political voice and access to the courthouse contributed to abandoned graveyards being taken off of property descriptions and sold for other uses.

That is likely the story of the two missing graveyards found this year in Tampa, the Zion Cemetery in Tampa Heights mostly under Robles Park housing complex, and the Ridgewood Cemetery beneath a field and agriculture lab at King High School. Archaeologists have confirmed the presence of 145 graves at Ridgewood; 144 at Zion so far. 

“You have to imagine, who's going to speak up” when cemeteries are sold, Rainville said. “A lot of smaller cemeteries start by one person (who) will allow like a local church or community or family and friends to start burying on their land. But then it will expand over time.

“A lot of times these old cemeteries, no one ever goes to the courthouse and files the paperwork of ownership for the cemeteries. You would have needed a lawyer to help you write up the document or you pay a surveyor to do the map. Well, a lot of these families don't have money. They don't have money to spend on efforts like that.”

The ground penetrating radar is orange and the size of a large car battery, riding in a cradle that resembles a baby stroller
Ground-penetrating radar is a small tool with an outsize role in righting historic wrongs done to African American cemeteries, according to a historian. Credit: Wayne Garcia/WUSF Public Media

The times are changing, however. Rainville said lost African American cemeteries are getting their due finally, as their stories are told.

“Yes, I think we absolutely are, as a society, continuing to evolve in terms of appreciating that everyone has the right to bury their dead in peace and not be disturbed by construction projects,” she said. “I would also say that all these efforts are being aided through like social media and everything to do with our one degree of separation today.”

Another important tool in the effort to find justice for the lost souls is ground-penetrating radar.

“One of the things that used to happen in the past is people, especially local community members, would say things like, 'Hey, you know, I heard a story that two generations ago or a generation ago, this was burial ground.'” Rainville said. “And it was much easier for individuals, for whatever reason, who didn't want to be bothered by the thought of the cemetery to say, 'Prove it. That there's no graveyard. I mean, there, no gravestones left.'

“So GPR is a very important tool for providing information to counteract either people's assumptions or their efforts to forget about these sites,” she said.