In Houston, Texas, this volunteer is working to save the 4,000 graves from erosion at the Olivewood African-American Cemetery, which has just been classified among the most endangered sites in the United States by the National Trust for Historic. Preservation, a heritage protection organization.
This Saturday, dozens of volunteers brave the heat there to mow its grass or clean its tombstones while, in the country, more and more people are mobilizing to save places that until then were of little interest: Afro-American cemeteries. Americans abandoned or simply erased.
“The murder of George Floyd was a moment of awareness,” said Antoinette Jackson, professor in the department of anthropology at the University of South Florida, to explain this growing interest.
African-American cemeteries “have been continually erased and their information silenced,” she explains.
To list them, bring them out of oblivion and respond to “anti-Black racism in the United States”, she says, she created the Black Cemetery Network site where anyone can report a cemetery.
In February, legislation, the African American Burial Grounds Preservation Act, was introduced in Parliament to help “research, identify, document, preserve and interpret the burial sites of African Americans”. The researcher thinks she will be adopted in the fall.
– Reverse writing, shells… –
If the cemeteries of slaves are in danger, it is because they were built on fields belonging to whites who did not always list them. Many of the new owners then ignored them.
Many other more recent cemeteries have been illegally taken from black communities whose “rights were not respected”, adds the researcher.
Such was the case in Tampa, Florida, where Mayor Jane Castor apologized in January that the city illegally dispossessed black communities of two cemeteries to resell them in the 1930s to white developers who built on them.
In the suburbs of Washington, it is the attempt to sell a plot of a former slave cemetery to an investor that is currently mobilizing associations.
Finally, African Americans have often been driven away from their cemeteries by the construction of infrastructure crossing their neighborhoods or because of gentrification.
Around Olivewood Cemetery in Houston, a single African-American family still lives in a modest house, surrounded by high-end buildings sometimes still under construction.
In 1993, Charles Cook discovered the cemetery more or less abandoned for forty years. “It was a jungle,” he told AFP.
Machete in hand, he cleared it and still continues to maintain it every day at his own expense. By documenting its occupants, he discovered after a few years that two of his ancestors were buried there.
A study will soon propose solutions to protect it from the dangers of rainwater and the bayou which are eroding it. It remains to finance the work.
Anthropology student Jasmine Lee supervises the volunteers this Saturday. She is fascinated by these tombs where former slaves “express spiritual ideals which sometimes could not be put into practice during slavery, but which they brought with them towards freedom”.
Anthropology student Jasmine Lee supervises the volunteers this Saturday. She is fascinated by these tombs which testify “to spiritual ideas which are expressed during the period of slavery, but which also persist beyond”.
Here, letters written upside down to deceive evil spirits or allow the dead to read their name from their vault. There, shells which remind us that the sea voyage symbolizes in certain cultures the departure towards the afterlife.
A little further, iron pipes no doubt planted to help the spirits circulate.
– Identify 95 corpses –
In Sugar Land, west of Houston, a memorial project plans to honor the 95 African Americans whose bodies were found in 2018 during work on the grounds of the local school academy.
Died between 1878 and 1911, these prisoners whose skeletons revealed poor health were rented by the judicial authorities to the local sugar cane plantation.
Legal, “convict leasing” compensated for the end of slavery until its abolition in 1912 in Texas and in 1941 at the federal level.
Campaign director of the Convict Leasing and Labor Project, Shifa Rahman is fighting today with his association for the future memorial to explain “in a fair and equitable way what the convict rental system was”.
His association is also calling for DNA tests to identify the corpses. Today, everyone has an identical tombstone on which is written “unknown”, followed by a number.