(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.
The anthropological work that we did on the African Burial Ground project continues at our Institute for Historical Biology at William and Mary. We've learned from that experience that cemeteries are a fundamental part of human characteristics. It should not be a surprise, but the real unique thing was the beginning of the customary burial of the dead, and treatments of those burials, that suggested the ideas of continued life and memorialization … after death. That is a trait of human beings.
TR: How would African Americans today try to locate the remains of their enslaved ancestors if most cemeteries are unmarked or hidden? For example, my people were sharecroppers in Texas.
MLB: I don't know much about Texas, but in many ways, Texas is similar to Louisiana and other adjacent places. There is an important cemetery that's largely a freedmen's cemetery in Dallas, and it represents what happened immediately after emancipation.
With emancipation, whether it's Hampton, Va., or Dallas, blacks began immediately to do the things they needed to do as human beings. They established schools and churches; they were married legally for the first time, and they buried their dead carefully. I think that in Texas, there were cemeteries on plantations that would've been poorly marked, maybe with a fieldstone, a cross or a stake … if anything. These markers would decay rapidly, so today those cemeteries would be hard to find, but not impossible.
TR: Did you feel a sense of completion when you found the histories of those lost people?
SA: My great-aunt's grandmother lost contact with our family, and we never knew what happened to her. She was a slave, and my great-aunt thought perhaps she'd been sold off somewhere, but based on the research I did on the cemetery in Tennessee, it turns out she was most likely buried there the whole time. But my family didn't know because the whole section where she might be is unmarked and had not been recognized. It was rewarding to share the news with my aunt and her sisters, because they'd been looking for her.
MB: Though family relationships are important, this is also about a community's relationship with its past. There are many African Americans who are looking for their past, and the history and story of 200 years of slavery in the Americas is written by those who were allowed to write. They often wrote about the enslaved as property or in numbers, but their human history is little recorded. Texts written by African Americans who were born in Africa and lived in the colonies before and after the revolution, to give unique details of the American life of enslaved people, [are] often missing.
My main skill is bio-archeology, which means that even if we're only left with the skeletons, it is possible to reconstruct most of that story. If we work with historians and archeologists who work with the cultural remains, we can construct a kind of history, which is what we did in New York. More important than our ability to do these things is the question of why and how this is done. Our commitment has been to only do this work when requested by the descendant community, to answer their questions with our methods.
My opinion is these cemeteries represent history, not only for the families but also for society. To understand African-American, American or world history, one needs to know more about what Africans and African Americans were doing. If requested and done in an ethical manner, it could mean going to science to find answers for this community. It is something that's in the realm of possibilities or the range of things that people do to lend more importance to the memorials to the unknown African.
If you know of a slave burial ground in your area, you can share that information with Fordham University's Burial Database Project of Enslaved African Americans project here.
Hillary Crosley is the New York bureau chief at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.