In the last few months, within the state of Virginia alone, I have heard from or about:
- Fluvanna County Historical Society‘s recovery efforts at two nineteenth-century burial grounds for African Americans: Oak Hill Cemetery in West Bottom, and Free Hill Cemetery in Columbia
- A neighborhood movement to protest a casino proposal adjoining historic black graves on Gravel Hill Road in Richmond’s Granite community
- The Coalition to Save Historic Thoroughfare‘s struggle to block development and displacement at several historic African American and Native American burial sites
- Preservation Virginia’s naming of Portsmouth’s Mount Calvary Cemetery Complex and Richmond’s Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground on its 2021 “Most Endangered Historic Places” list
- The formation of a Descendants Council to protest conditions at Richmond’s Evergreen and East End Cemeteries and urge accountability for the Enrichmond Foundation’s stewardship there
Related stories elsewhere have made headlines, such as the discovery that human remains from the bombing of Philadelphia’s MOVE community in 1985 had been held at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University for teaching aids, without the family’s knowledge.
All of this points to a desperate need to account for and protect African American remains across the nation, an effort that requires more than local organizations. So Justin Dunnavant, Delande Justinvil, and Chip Colwell have proposed an African American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to mirror the protections put in place for indigenous remains in the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, signed into law in 1990. It would build on the African American Burial Grounds Network Act currently proposed in Congress to catalog existing institutional collections and pause the use of those collections until descendent groups have been contacted and consulted. Their proposal takes its cue from the model developed by anthropologist Michael Blakey at the New York African Burial Ground project, more recently implemented by Virginia Commonwealth University in the East Marshall Street Well Project.
Until such a system is in place, we can count on adding further tragic episodes to this listing.