The politics of respecting in death those not respected in life

Last week in a Maryland judicial proceeding, the state district judge in the case ruled, for once, that the living Black population in the district of Maryland covered by the case, had the right to preserve the gravesite of hundreds of former Black residents buried in what was once a community gravesite called Moses African Cemetery, and that the commission which sued to be able to seize and utilize that land by selling it for urban redevelopment had to cease and desist.

This was one of the first such rulings in the U.S. and still may not be final, depending on what the state commission decides to do. Usually, even the preliminary decisions like this one have gone the other way—the Black dead have no more rights than the Black living, and parking lots and mall development usually take precedence over old Black burial grounds. 

In  the case, Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition v. Housing Opportunities Commission, Judge Karla Smith of the Montgomery County Circuit Court ruled that the local community organization bringing the case (Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition), “has provided overwhelming evidence that a portion of a suburban Washington apartment complex was once used broadly as a burial ground for freed Black slaves and their descendants and  that many bodies likely still remain on the property.” This ruling stopped, at least for now, the $50 million sale by the Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission of what is now called the Westwood Towers property to a development company which intends to redevelop the land into new apartments.

The coalition accused the commission of violating state law by failing to get court approval for the apartment complex’s sale, which is normally required when cemetery property is involved, and the Coalition presented massive evidence that the property had been a large Black community gravesite that had simply been paved over by previous urban development. The judge in the case denied a motion by the Housing Commission which sought to dismiss the community group’s position, and instead granted a preliminary injunction to halt the sale. Although developers are supposed to investigate the historical properties of land in virtually every American municipality before they redevelop or otherwise build on that land, this is an area of the law known to be widely ignored and disrespected. This is particularly the case for old gravesites, and Black ones regularly get no respect or enforcement.

This development reiterates the principle that “until the federal government takes ownership of protecting and contextualizing Black memorial spaces and gravesites, it will remain up to communities themselves to save Black gravesites and memorials from urban redevelopment and old fashioned neglect.”

This brings up another huge task for the Biden administration that can actually be accomplished by the passage of  the African American Burial Grounds Network Act, introduced by U.S. Congressman A. Donald McEachin, (D-Va.) in 2018. There now does not exist any official database of Black cemeteries and old gravesites in the U.S., so it is impossible at present to identify where and how many Black gravesites there are in the country. The purpose of Mr. McEachin’s legislation is to create a national network of Black cemeteries and a formal database of historic Black burial sites. The legislation would provide grant funding for research and restoration (plenty of jobs for young researchers) and would be put under the purview of the National Park Service, the same agency that oversees the National Underground Railroad Project.  The Park Service would also attract broader public interest in the gravesites project and can lead to many citizens bringing forth information about where hidden burial sites lay.

This is actually another area for Reparations Commissioners to look into.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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