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'A dignity that all Americans should have': The fight to save historically Black cemeteries

Preserving historically Black cemeteries in the 91影视 is about more than restoration, but provides a chance to repair injustices and shape equitable futures, experts say.

A cemetery is the last refuge of the body, a sacred space of remembrance and for some a place to remember history.

For people working to preserve historic Black cemeteries, the sacred nature of resting places takes on heightened significance as a place of spiritual reverence and cultural memory

Brent Leggs, senior Vice President at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the executive director of the African American Culture Heritage Action Fund, said that being able to visit these sacred places is a fundamental piece of human dignity.

"Having access to a historic cemetery that's connected to one's family, and even more broadly to historical figures in American history, that is a dignity that all Americans should have and it's an opportunity for us as a nation to honor those whose contribution has helped to create a vibrant and robust democracy," Leggs told 91影视.

The preservation of historic Black cemeteries is a part of the work to maintain African American culture, according to Leggs.

"Although black history has been marginalized, erased, desecrated, whether it's the black church or cemetery ... African Americans and their allies have been working for more than a century to create immortality and permanent representation of African American contributions to American history," Leggs said.

Developers put cemeteries at risk

The push to preserve historical African American burial grounds has taken on urgency as development has put some cemeteries at risk.

A seeks to stop the sale of a parking lot in Bethesda that currently covers the remains of a historically Black cemetery to developers.

The Bethesda African American Cemetery Coalition argues that since the land is a burial ground the sale of the land requires court approval if the land is to be used for another purpose.

鈥淭his issue is really critical because right now there are literally hundreds of African American burial grounds around the United States that are in various stages of desecration,鈥 Steven Lieberman, the attorney who is representing the Coalition told 91影视 in February.

91影视 reached out to the Coalition but did not receive a response.

The front gate of Pine Grove Cemetery, a historically Black cemetery, is seen on Monday, Aug. 7, 2023, in Fort Pierce, Florida.

Historic Black cemeteries found across country

The cemetery in Bethesda is far from the only burial ground preservationists have sought to protect.

, a project of the University of South Flordia's Heritage Research Lab, has discovered or preserved 156 sites since its founding in 2018.

鈥淢any of these historic Black cemeteries are now found to be pretty much erased or marginalized or built overtop of because of the history, the 91影视 history of slavery and segregation,鈥 聽a professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida, told 91影视 in February.

In 2022, Congress passed聽聽which authorized the National Parks Service to establish a program meant to offer $3 million in grants for the identification, preservation, and documentation of document sites. Leggs told 91影视 that the program has yet to be funded.

Leggs noted that places like in Newport, Rhode Island preserve burial traditions with connections to the first enslaved people brought to the colonies.

"These places hold a multiplicity of diverse stories, and that's why we are so inspired to use preservation as a pathway for building a national ethic and are re-imagining for how our nation can honor those that came before us," Leggs said.

How can public get involved

Leggs said that much of the work to preserve and protect cemeteries is ad-hoc, like the work of Jaune Gagnard and Kelby Hernandez in Louisiana.

The pair have been restoring Black cemeteries in the town of Pineville since 2020 when Gagnard was, "called by God" to clean them up.

"All these graves, all these souls, they were somebody one time,鈥 Gagnard told the Alexandria Town Talk 鈥 a part of the 91影视 Network. 鈥淎nd they still matter. So we just do our part."

While the restoration and preservation of cemeteries may seem small in the larger context of the role of race relations, Leggs pointed out the restorative element of the practice

"At this moment, historic preservation is ascending as an essential methodology for repairing past injustices and shaping equitable futures," Leggs said. "I go back to this idea that we are collectively igniting a cultural renaissance."

Leggs said that the path towards preservation begins with curiosity.

"I would encourage the public just to be curious," Leggs said. "I think curiosity is an important starting place that will hopefully inspire citizens at a local level to want to document and understand the complexity of their local stories and historic resources.

Correction: A previous version of this story said Hernandez and Gagnard work in Virginia.

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