A gravesite is supposed to be a sacred space--a space for reflection to honor those who went before us.
Evelyn Buck, 91, regularly visits what’s now called the Cookeville Buck Cemetery outside of Nashville, Tennessee. It’s a place where Black families have laid loved ones to rest for more than 100 years. It is where Buck’s husband, Walter, is buried.
“He was a policeman. He was a veteran. I wanted him to be buried at the veteran’s cemetery. But he said no. He said he wanted to be buried beside his mom and dad,” Buck shared.
The cemetery had been long neglected until a local archivist became interested. Over the years, the cemetery has been restored through numerous local collaborative efforts.
Similar stories are playing out at other Black cemeteries in cities across the country. In Cleveland, junior cadets are helping other groups raise money to buy missing headstones that belong to Black Civil War veterans.
Eagle Scouts in Richmond, Virginia, built a memorial for veterans’ headstones that were piled up in another Black cemetery. Girls in San Diego, California, are learning to fly drones so they can help map out lost burial sites of Black or Indigenous people.
In Clearwater, Florida, there are protective land orders in place and educational programing is being developed to teach school children about various cemeteries that were erased or mismanaged.
The Tampa Bay area has several gravesites, some now covered up by various developments. The University of South Florida in Tampa is also where the Black Cemetery Network originated.
Professor Antoinette Jackson, chair of the anthropology department at USF, is the founder and oversees the project. The Black Cemetery Network is a growing database of documented projects to uncover and restore black cemeteries across the country.
“It is telling untold stories that really need to be put in the public light that are often ignored or have been left out over time in history,” Jackson explained. “It’s not just about the cemeteries; it is about the businesses, the schools, the churches and all those kinds of things that have been going on in these communities all this time.”
Jackson says the website is also useful because it allows various groups working at different Black cemeteries across the country to communicate with each other and share best practices and various ways to strengthen legislation and support for their work. The Black Cemetery Network took off after George Floyd’s murder and America’s racial reckoning in 2020. It started out as a $500,000 grant. Since then, Jackson says the response has been overwhelming. They have grown from 11 sites to more than 79 in 20 states and Washington, D.C.
Anyone working at a Black cemetery site can submit their information to the network. Jackson and her team are verifying the information.
At the end of 2022, after years of failed efforts, the African American Burial Grounds Preservation Program was included in the government funding bill. It will provide $3 million in grants every year for the next four years to help identify gravesites before any more redevelopments can cover them up.
Jackson sees these cemeteries connecting communities over America’s complex history.
“Everybody I’ve found wants dignity for the dead, and so, I think it helps people have difficult conversations but on a point where they can really unite and connect around wanting to learn and empathize with others,” Jackson said.
Another component of the Black Cemetery Network is telling the stories of these cemeteries and the work through artists. Poets like Walter “Wally B.” Jennings are helping bring even more people into the conversation.