African American Burial Grounds Need Protection

African American heritage sites need protectionArchaeologists Cheryl LaRoche and Michael Blakey (1997) described how construction at a the Ted Weiss Federal Building in New York City ground to a halt under withering protests from New York City’s Black community when they realized a slave burial ground was being removed for a construction project. Even though the project area was marked “Negroes Burying Ground” on 18th century maps, the construction was approved in 1991 and, when burials were identified beneath 30 feet of fill, a plan was created for cultural resource management archaeologists to remove the burials. The Black community was not consulted about this until 1992, after dozens of individuals had been excavated. Over 400 burials were eventually removed.

Aside from the Section 106 Process of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and passages of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), there are no specific protections for African American archaeological sites. There are also no requirements for African American community collaboration or that archaeologists experienced in working on African American sites be involved with their identification, excavation, analysis, or curation. This is the same problem Native Americans face with regard to their heritage sites: Persons unfamiliar with non-White cultures are doing significance assessments, excavation, and analysis for non-White sites.

Situations like the African Burial Ground in NYC continue to happen because of the way CRM is practiced and who is practicing it. Legislation was introduced in the U.C. Congress today that will do much to remedy this situation when it comes to African American burial grounds.

Who determines significance?

It is no secret that archaeology is overwhelmingly White. This creates complications for CRMers when they encounter Black sites. Research by Kerri Barile (2004: 90) shows a discrepancy in the way CRM archaeologists recommend Black sites eligible for the National Register:

The current interpretations are dependent upon site significance and integrity, often failing to consider a site’s historical context by utilizing single-level analytical methods and disregarding regional interpretations. This results in a considerable bias in the sites that are nominated to the NRHP, as the central issues of race and historical representation and variations in site type are ignored in favor of one-sided evaluation methods and a lack of regional interpretation.”

Jennifer Babiarz has also noted how the treatment of Black sites by CRMers stems from the mono-racial nature of archaeology, which makes it harder for practitioners to appropriately understand or evaluate Black sites. In “White Privilege and Silencing within the Heritage Landscape” (2011:53), she describes how the predominately white CRM industry ill-equipped to assess, investigate, and evaluate African American sites. Babiarz describes how the acculturation of archaeologists manifests itself in such a way that Black sites are not always identified as significant. She also describes how, even though the NHPA is supposed to cover sites considered significant in American history, CRMers frequently do not document Black sites as significant, especially in antebellum contexts. This has implications for the Americanness, right to citizenship, and “othering” of African Americans:

“If historical sites associated with people of color are less represented on the National Register of Historic Places because it is more difficult for African American sites to be recognized as significant…then what is the federal government telling all of its citizens about who is deserving of citizenship?”

It also means Black heritage properties go unnoticed and unprotected, which is a central aspect of Black erasure from American histories.

If Black sites are not seen as significant in the eyes of CRMers, in whose eyes do these sites matter? The smaller number of African American-related sites on the National Register is just one result of the failure to identify significant Black sites. Unfortunately, archaeologists do not always talk to the Black community until it is beyond too late.

African Americans have long advocated for the identification and recognition of our heritage sites. Sometimes this involves direct political action like protests, boycotts, lobbying, and strategic partnerships. LaRoche and Blakey (1997:95) describe the conundrum Black communities face when they fight against projects with a Federal Nexus that involve Black heritage archaeological sites and what that means for CRMers:

“Most of the Euroamerican government officials and their consultants acted without apparent recognition that blacks understood exactly what was being attempted and had effective strategies for surmounting those obstacles. Exclusion, dismissive attitudes, tokenism, and claims of unfairness and “reverse racism” when African Americans seek full access to resources are commonplace interactions with white Americans. The effectiveness of the sophisticated African-American lobby at the city, state, and national levels demonstrates a lack of realism on their opponents’ part. Where in other aspects of daily life individual African-American citizens would be limited in their ability to roundly address such circumstances, here in the important moment and symbolism of their ancestor’s dignity, white racism would be addressed in microcosm.”

Working with Native Americans has taught me that cultural knowledge is crucial in the identification and interpretation of sites that are not associated with your own culture. If White archaeologists can’t see the significance of Black sites, who can help them make these determinations? CRM is not without a means of understanding the Black world even though there are very few African American archaeologists (FYI: I’m friends with most of them and I don’t have that many friends). CRMers can partially remedy their deficiencies by building quality relationships with Black communities and consulting them when Black sites are encountered during CRM work. This is not a perfect solution but it is better than what is happening today. In the face of structural racism, we push on.

The uprising in NYC resulted in the creation of the African Burial Ground National Monument. Today, visitors to the Ted Weiss Federal Building can also see a memorial to the enslaved African New Yorkers laid to rest at this location. The resulting research has yielded important information about the lives of early Africans in the United States—knowledge that might not have been acquired without direct action from the Black community. The ABG National Monument is also a testament to the power direct political action has to change conditions and rectify deficiencies in U.S. activities. It an instance when American communities fought to save heritage sites, and won.

It is also a cautionary tale for CRMers who stand to lose government contracts when they fail to adequately identify the significance of African American sites.

There are many others out there

The African Burial Ground in NYC isn’t the only black burial ground that has been lost to time but remains threatened in the present. There are likely hundreds more African American burial grounds but, actually, we don’t know how many there are because there has been no effort to systematically identify and record them on a national scale.

I am proud to announce that the United States House of Representatives introduced legislation in Congress today (02/13/2019) that proposes the National Park Service establish an African American Burial Grounds Network. The Adams-McEachin African American Burial Grounds Network Act creates a voluntary national network of historic African-American burial grounds across the United States. The Act:

  • Creates a voluntary, nation-wide database of historic burial grounds, with the consent of the property owner, that relate to the historic African-American experience.
    • Provides technical assistance to local public, private, state and local partners to research, survey, identify, record, preserve, evaluate, and interpret these burial grounds.
    • Establishes educational materials for community members, local groups, and schools about African-American burial grounds.
    • Makes available grants for local groups to research, survey, identify, record, and aid in the preservation of sites within the Network.

You can learn more about this Act by listening to the Call To Action episode of the CRM Archaeology Podcast (

The Act is supported by a broad coalition of historic preservation organizations, archaeology societies, and public archaeology groups. Crafted with significant contributions and support from the Society for Historical Archaeology, the Society for American Archaeology, the National Trust, and other groups, this legislation is intended to provide Black communities with a means for inventorying these important heritage sites in hopes that they will be preserved. This is in the best interest of all Americans.

Another step in confronting painful pasts

The year 2019 marks at least 400 years of slavery in United States. While 1619 is considered the date slavery began in the U.S., it was simply the first noted sale of African slaves in Jamestown. Estevanicio (Esteban) became the first African slave to enter what is now the United States when, in 1528, he made the overland trek from what is now coastal Texas to Mexico. More than 15,000 African slaves were in Puerto Rico by 1555. By the 1560s, English traders were in the slave trade, selling victims in Caribbean colonies. Slavery existed in the English colony of Bermuda by 1617. Slaves definitely in Puerto Rico before then. Slavery was already present in what is now the U.S. by 1619.

Nevertheless, 2019 is celebrated as the 400th anniversary of slavery in the United States. The tragic slave period in the United States brought unknown horror, deprivation, and suffering to millions of Americans. African America has not fully recovered from this. Using archaeology to commemorate what has happened to Black people in this country is a form of “Archaeology as Therapy.” Engaged archaeological collaborations with communities that have suffered the pain of colonization can help them work through old traumas while also forging a more durable connection to the materials of the past. As Schaepe et al. (2017:517) write:

“The history of archaeological and anthropological theory traces the trajectory of these factors in our disciplinary thinking and practice. These factors are critical to archaeological linkages between theory, methods, and interpretation. We recognize that indigenous societies maintain their own historical trajectories of philosophy, worldview, and practice of these factors in the negotiation and expression of their communities. We find it necessary to couple our objective of achieving a positive impact on community health and wellbeing, as a therapeutic practice, with a critically important objective of understanding the relationship between our respective views of these societal factors.”

These collaborations are also fruitful for archaeologists because they force us to address the ways we view concepts like culture, time, place, materiality, and race. Unions with descendant communities are transformative for archaeologists and communities, something that is sorely needed in CRM.

African American historical archaeology has changed many things in American archaeology since 1980s. The African Burial Ground, application of critical race theory, and increased public archaeology have all colored African American archaeology with an activist’s tint that is at the heart of actions like the Adams-McEachin African American Burial Grounds Network Act. While the Act is happening at the Federal level, most of the activism today is happening at the local level:

Including slaves’ descendants in archaeology: Increasingly, archaeologists are attempting to include African American descendants of slaves in the research, commemoration, and interpretation of slave-related sites. The “Descendants Project” at Montpelier is part of their dedication to engaged public archaeology. The Project invites African American descendants of James Madison’s slaves to participate in the excavation and interpretation of archaeological materials at the site. At Monticello, an interactive exhibit has been created dedicated to Thomas Jefferson’s slave and concubine Sally Hemings. Hemings’ descendants were invited to collaborate and participate in this exhibit, which takes place alongside decades of archaeological research conducted on former slave cabins nearby.

Public archaeologies of Blackness: For a decade, Alexandra Jones, founder of Archaeology in the Community, has been working to bring archaeology to Beltway youth. This work is real-time public engagement that frequently helps Black youth know about what archaeology can contribute to Black lives. The River Street Digital History Project in Boise, Idaho is another example of how publics are providing substantial contributions to the understanding of Black lives. While there have never been many Black people in Boise, the public archaeology project conducted in the only African American neighborhood helped local residents understand how segregation affected both Black and White people.

Black archaeologists doing work for Black people: A small but dedicated group of African American archaeologists are also doing what they can to interpret Black heritage sites for Black people. The Society of Black Archaeologists, which was founded in 2011, has been conducting an ongoing field project in St. Croix, U.S.V.I. at the Estate Little Princess—a former Danish sugar plantation, which was also the birthplace and resting place for enslaved Afro-Crucians. The work on St. Croix is designed to help teach local Black youth about archaeology and heritage conservation of resources in their own community. The hope is that local people will be skilled and empowered to use archaeology to advocate for sites that are central to their identity as Afro-Crucians.

All of this work is being done in addition to the hundreds of CRM projects that continue to identify African American sites every day. The proposed legislation a continuation of this movement.

Be an advocate for African American heritage sites

Awareness is first step in developing coordinated approach for African American graveyards. Collaboration with Black communities is the second step. Federal historic preservation regulations only do so much when it comes to important sites. Community activism is required to provide local voices in the interpretation of their own sites. NAGPRA happened after decades of Native American advocacy and activism. By 1990, tens of thousands of Native American sites had been recorded, grave goods removed, and skeletons taken away. The NAGPRA isn’t perfect but it gave millions of Federally recognized Native American tribes a chance to reclaim items important to their heritage.

Nobody knows how many African American burial grounds exist in the United States. Burials in enslaved contexts exhibit a range of beliefs, customs, and practices. This movement to inventory these burial grounds is first step in coordinated effort to ethically treat African American burial grounds and provide some solace for the descendants of slaves.

African American history is American history. While there is much that can be done by Black people for themselves, a critical mass of archaeologists will go far in helping create legislation designed to help Black communities identify the sites of their ancestors so they can be protected for future generations.

What can you do?

Right now, this legislation is passing through the halls of Congress. This means your representative or senator has a chance to make this happen.

There are two things you can do to help:

1) Urge your local archaeology society to join the group of advocates for this legislation. You can do this by sending an email to Representative A. Donald McEachin’s staffer Blair Wriston <> and Representative Alma S. Adams’ staffer Katherine Stewart <>

2) Write your own endorsement letter and send it to those two staffers. To make it easy on you, I have included a letter template for you.  AfAmBurial Ground letter   Just open it in Microsoft Word and email it to the appropriate connections.

This is something we can make happen. Congressman McEachin supported the current bill in part because of events taking place at the state level in Virginia where Confederate graves have long enjoyed state support for maintenance but there was nothing similar for private African American cemeteries. Virginia Delegate Delores McQuinn got a bill for annual support for black cemeteries passed in the Virginia Legislature 2017. Every year since, new cemeteries have been added to it.

If Virginia can do it, so can the rest of the country. Send a message to your representative that you support this bill. Pass the message on to other people you know who might be willing to support the cause.


Babiarz, Jennifer J.

2011       White Privilege and Silencing within Heritage Landscape: Race and the Practice of Cultural Resource Management. In The Materiality of Freedom: Archaeologies of Postemancipation Life. Edited by Jodi A. Barnes. Pgs. 47—57. The University of South Carolina Press, Columbia.

Barile, Kerri S.

2004       Race, the National Register, and Cultural Resource Management: Creating an Historic Context for Postbellum Sites. Historical Archaeology, 38(1):90-100.

LaRoche, Cheryl J. and Michael Blakey

1997       Seizing Intellectual Power: The Dialogue at the New York African Burial Ground. Historical Archaeology, 31(3):84—106.

Schaepe, David M., Bill Angelbeck, David Snook, and John R. Welch

2017       Archaeology as Therapy: Connecting Belongings, Knowledge, Time, Place, and Well-Being. Current Anthropology, 58(4):502—533.


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