Black cemetery

Neglected And Desecrated: A Call To Preserve America’s Black Cemeteries

Margot Williams, Lisa Fager, and Yamona Pierce all hail from different corners of America—Washington, D.C., Georgia, and Texas—and share a common mission: preserving Black cemeteries.

As The New York Times originally reported, these remarkable women have witnessed the heart-wrenching desecration of Black grave sites in their respective hometowns, driving them to channel their grief and anger into an unwavering determination. 

These women’s stories of resilience and unwavering commitment to restoring the dignity of Black cemeteries serve as a compelling call to action in the fight for preserving America’s Black burial grounds.

In a quiet corner of Georgetown, one of Washington’s oldest Black cemeteries is a solemn reminder of a 7-year-old girl known as “Nannie,” who died on May 18, 1856. 

This year, as the nation celebrated Juneteenth, a day commemorating emancipation, the sanctity of Nannie’s final resting place was shattered. As reported by ABC4 Washington, on that fateful night, following a gathering of over 200 people who came to pay their respects on Juneteenth, Nannie’s grave was set ablaze, scorching her tombstone and destroying the heartfelt tributes lovingly placed there.

The NYT article explains that Lisa Fager, the executive director of the Black Georgetown Foundation, who is responsible for preserving this historic cemetery, was devastated when she discovered the aftermath. A senseless act of vandalism had marred a place with immense historical significance.

According to the outlet, Fager, the caretaker of the Mount Zion-Female Union Band Society cemeteries in Washington, D.C., embodies resilience and tenacity in the face of adversity. While the neighboring Oak Hill Cemetery thrives and receives ample financial support for preservation efforts, Fager’s foundation struggles to secure even a fraction of the required funds. The glaring disparity between the care extended to the Oak Hill Cemetery and the adjacent Black cemeteries is a stark reminder of these historic sites’ systemic neglect.

Margott Williams, who founded a nonprofit entrusted with the care of Olivewood Cemetery in Houston, succinctly captures the essence of their mission: “We stand on their shoulders.” In Washington, Lisa Fager single-handedly took on the city and federal government when work crews threatened to encroach on the Female Union Band Society cemetery during a bike path renovation. 

According to the article, Williams has been fighting a relentless battle to restore Olivewood Cemetery, which holds the remains of 4,000 of the city’s earliest Black residents, including a dozen of her own ancestors. The cemetery’s biggest threat is uncontrolled flooding from the adjacent bayou, exacerbated by nearby development, which has washed graves into a ravine. Williams’s struggle epitomizes the dedication required to preserve and honor these historic sites. Despite Olivewood’s recognition as a historic site by UNESCO and the state of Texas, the cemetery receives no government funding for maintenance.

In Midland, Georgia, Yamona Pierce demanded that Georgia Power rectify the damage caused to Pierce Chapel African Cemetery when they plowed an access path over graves. In Houston, Williams, at the heart of her city’s Black history preservation efforts, pushed a lawnmower to Olivewood for months, eventually convincing the county to entrust her with the cemetery’s care. 

According to the outlet, the exact number of surviving Black burial grounds in the United States remains unknown, and this issue is further exacerbated by limited funding. Tens of thousands of Black cemeteries are vying for preservation grants, with a recent competition drawing proposals from 5,400 such cemeteries seeking a total of $650 million, starkly contrasting the available funding from private and corporate donors.

The article concluded that the African American Burial Grounds Preservation Act was passed late last year, authorizing $3 million for competitive grants to identify, research, and preserve Black cemeteries. However, Congress has not yet appropriated the funds. Consequently, this legislation remains more of a promise than a tangible solution.

This story was written by Black Enterprise contributor Rafael Pena.

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