(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.
MLB: Well, New York’s African Burial Ground is pretty close to finding a cemetery beneath the Empire State Building. The remains of 15,000 African Americans are buried there on Broadway. I directed that project, and it involved a collaboration mainly with the descendants that insisted in the early 1990s that the cemetery be preserved. Most people were surprised that there would be representation of an African-American population in New York City that reached about 20 percent of colonial New York, when slavery was often described as an institution of the South.
There were 14,090 skeletons excavated, and the estimate from that [was] an original 15,000, so it was clear that Africans lived throughout the North. As we looked more closely at historical documentation, it was clear that slavery existed in all 13 colonies, and the institution built much of the foundation of the United States and our economy. All of this has been disguised by the idea that slavery was solely an institution of the South.