Find Where Your Slave Ancestors Are Buried

Fordham's user-generated website seeks to create a national cemetery database to reconnect the past.

Fordham University

(The Root) -- Thanks to census records, many African Americans can trace some of their family's history, but what about those lost during slavery? Fordham University seeks to answer that very question with a new Burial Database Project of Enslaved African Americans, based on user-submitted information and led by Sandra Arnold, senior secretary of Fordham's department of African and African-American studies, and Irma Watkins-Owens, associate professor of history and African-American studies, along with adviser Michael L. Blakey, anthropology professor and director of the Institute for Historical Biology at the College of William and Mary.

African Americans are encouraged to contact the trio with any information they have about slavery burial grounds in their area. Once the group receives the information, they will upload the locations and details into their database and build a historical network of sorts. Often, Arnold reports, the submissions they receive aren't where many of us might assume.

The Root spoke with Arnold and Blakey about the project's catalyst, where to find a slavery burial ground and why these types of cemeteries are important not only to black history but also to American history.

The Root: What was the inspiration for the burial-database project?

Sandra Arnold: My great-aunt, actually. Her father was born a slave and is buried in a cemetery in Tennessee. She'd told me about the cemetery, and when I went out to visit and learned more about it, this idea was born.

Michael L. Blakey: I've been an adviser, and I come from a history of work that involves cemeteries of the enslaved. We've been working on ways of helping communities memorialize by first identifying the remains, so I was pleased to see the Fordham project.

TR: Where are the cemetery locations where you've begun research?

SA: The project just launched in January, but our website went live in February. Since then people have submitted a few sites all over the country -- and not necessarily in the South, as many would assume.

TR: Have any submissions been surprising, like a cemetery beneath New York's Empire State Building?

SA: Dr. Blakey might not be surprised, but the number of submissions located outside the South surprised me.