Federal act inspired by Cincinnati cemetery means funding for Black burial grounds across the nation
Funding is included in the recently signed Consolidated Appropriations Act to help restore and protect Black cemeteries. First introduced in 2019, the African American Burial Grounds Preservation Act was inspired by Cincinnati's Union Baptist Cemetery in Price Hill.
"I am so excited and praising God for this opportunity to help the burial grounds, not only Union Baptist and United American, but for all African American burial grounds across the country; for us to be able to honor our ancestors in an a very special way (and) to remember them," exclaims Louise Stevenson, a member of Union Baptist Church.
The act was included in the fiscal year 2023 omnibus spending plan passed by Congress in late December and signed by President Joe Biden Dec. 29, 2022. It will establish a program within the National Park Service "to provide grant opportunities and technical assistance to local partners to research, identify, survey and preserve these cemeteries," according to bill sponsor Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown. His office says the bill authorizes that $3 million can be appropriated per year for preservation efforts.
"As a nation, we have failed to preserve historic Black burial grounds around the country. That's why we've worked with the community, and with civil rights, veterans, and historic preservation groups to introduce bipartisan legislation to preserve these hallowed grounds," Brown writes in a news release.
The act was inspired after vandals overturned monuments and splashed graffiti throughout Union Baptist Cemetery in 2019. Brown visited the cemetery several months later to announce the first iteration of the act, which finally passed last month.
"Cemeteries like Union Baptist are important historical sites, and they're tools for education and understanding the American story," Brown says. "Now we will be able to preserve these sites before they are lost to the ravages of time or development."
The executive director of the Cincinnati Preservation Association, Beth Johnson, agrees. The agency is one of 150 nationwide that signed on in support of the legislation.
"We were extremely excited," Johnson says of the act being signed into law. "We're very proud of the place that Cincinnati holds in the story of this legislation and really excited to see, not just United American Cemetery and Union Baptist Cemetery, but all of the African American and Black cemeteries across the country get the proper recognition and the support that they need to preserve their history, and to preserve their identities and their communities through their cemeteries."
Their historical significance
Those two cemeteries are among the oldest African American cemeteries in Ohio. They're currently maintained by Union Baptist Church, but they've faced neglect, funding issues and vandalism for decades. They're also incredibly important historically.
Union Baptist Cemetery is a monument to about 120 free Black men. During the Civil War, they took up arms and fought as soldiers against a Confederate army that would have kept their people in bondage. The most famous of the African American soldiers is Powhatan Beaty. He was born enslaved in Virginia, came to Cincinnati at a young age, and was a free man by the time the Civil War started in 1861. For his bravery, he was awarded the highest honor a soldier can attain, the Medal of Honor.
United American Cemetery was founded in 1883, but includes graves moved from another African American cemetery in Avondale founded in 1844. The oldest legible tombstone is from 1832. Significant historical figures such as Underground Railroad conductors, abolitionists, the first African American elected to Cincinnati City Council, and veterans of every major U.S. war — including more than 50 Civil War veterans — are buried there.
Johnson explains how, along with the grant and technical assistance, the new National Park Service program will aid cemeteries — and the groups that maintain them — in finding funding; help with documenting burials and graves; and assistance with interpretation, as well as for preservation and maintenance.
She notes resources have been severely lacking for the African American community and its cemeteries.
"When these cemeteries were established in the 1860s, 1880s, sometimes even up to the 1840s, people that were Black were often formerly enslaved, and so they had very little money. (When) establishing these cemeteries there was very little in means of being able to have the proper records, and over time, to have the financial means to continue maintenance; to continue adding on to the cemetery; and to have the proper types of tombstones that would allow for people to have recognition of who was in each grave."
Church member Louise Stevenson says they're using grant dollars to begin the work of researching and documenting those who are laid to rest in the cemeteries they operate. She says she's thrilled for other cemeteries across the nation to do the same.
"To be able to locate the graves and give them background information about their family members — it is just wonderful," she says. "The stories of the people who are buried in the cemetery really need to be told. There's so many millions of stories that we just have no idea about that we're able to put together now."
Stevenson says Union Baptist isn't stopping with its two cemeteries either.
"We did contact U.S. Sen. Brown's office and said, 'Hey, we want to be at that table and the national level as it relates to African American cemeteries across the nation.' So we have put our bid in because we want to continue to work, and we have such a large group of community people from Cincinnati who have helped in so many different ways."
In a release, Cincinnati Vice Mayor Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney thanked Sen. Brown and bill co-sponsor Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) for understanding the importance of cemeteries.
"These sacred burial grounds not only serve to honor our ancestors, but they pass our communities’ history from generation to generation,” she writes.
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