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Sen. Brown introduces act to preserve Black cemeteries

Senate Banking Committee Chair Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, during a separate panel hearing on Feb. 15 in Washington, D.C.
Bill O'Leary
Pool / AFP via Getty Images
Senate Banking Committee Chair Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, during a separate panel hearing on Feb. 15 in Washington, D.C.

On February 18 Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) introduced the African American Burial Grounds Preservation Act. The legislation will direct federal dollars towards restoring and honoring Black cemeteries around the country.

Brown first introduced this law in 2019, after he visited the Union Baptist Cemetery in Cincinnati. The cemetery was founded in 1864 and includes the remains of former slaves, African American Union soldiers and civil rights activists. Brown said they received multiple reports of vandalism and the site needed major repairs.

This bipartisan bill is co-sponsored by Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) and will establish a program through the National Parks Service. That agency will provide grant money to local partners to identify, survey and restore sites across the country.

The parks service will also create a national database to track and find new sites. Brown says this is crucial as there could be thousands of unknown sites.

“Every week I hear from somebody, my staff hears from somebody who says, ‘Hey, there's a burial site in such and such a place,” Brown said. “That's part of the problem and the challenge.”

Brown said they will have a better idea of how much funding this program will receive once they identify more sites next year. He hopes this bill will ensure people’s stories are not forgotten.

One of those people is Powhatan Beaty. He is a Cincinnati man who escaped slavery and joined the Union Army. He won the Congressional Medal of Honor during the Civil War, and is buried at the Union Baptist Cemetery.

“It will be such an educational tool to get school kids to come out and see their history in the history of the community,” Brown said. “Powhatan Baby will be recognized as a hero in southwest Ohio, not just to young black kids, but to young kids everywhere.”

Brown said he expects local communities, churches and civic groups to pitch in as well. The legislation is also supported by historic preservation groups in Ohio and across the country, according to a press release.

Companion legislation is expected to be introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives next week by Rep. Alma Adams (D-NC) and Rep. Donald McEachin (D-VA).

Mawa Iqbal is a reporter for WYSO. Before coming to WYSO, she interned at Kansas City PBS's digital magazine, Flatland. There, her reporting focused on higher education and immigrant communities in the Kansas City area. She studied radio journalism at Mizzou, where she also worked for their local NPR-affiliate station as a reporter.