Congress renewing effort to preserve, protect historic Black cemeteries nationwide

Congress renewing effort to preserve, protect historic Black cemeteries nationwide

WASHINGTON D.C. — There are countless historic Black cemeteries nationwide, with some dating back more than 200 years.

Some are the final resting places for former slaves, and Black civil war soldiers.

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But many of these burial sites have been neglected, destroyed, or lost for good.

For the Black cemeteries that are still intact, some of them are hidden in plain sight, just like the Mount Zion - Female Union Band Society Historic Memorial Park within Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood.

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This historic cemetery is a sacred space with a history dating back centuries and stories like Hezekiah Turner’s.

“He was one of the first Black men to vote. In 1867 D.C. gave Black men the right to vote before, three years before the 15th amendment, here in Georgetown,” said Lisa Fager, executive director at Mount Zion - Female Union Band Society Historic Memorial Park.

Turner’s legacy is just one of possibly 10,000 graves at this cemetery.

When you visit the park and meet Lisa Fagar, she’s not just the cemetery’s executive director. She’s a walking history book and she knows almost every story hidden beneath these graves.

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“Once you start learning their lives and what they went through and then what they achieved in spite of, they deserve, more than deserve to rest in place. They deserve to rest in peace,” said Fagar.

It’s a peace that hasn’t been easy to come by.

Fagar said this cemetery opened in 1809, and it’s still physically here but other Black cemeteries haven’t had the same fate.

“They’re now, you know dog parks, and parks, and basketball courts and here I am struggling to save the oldest, oldest Black cemetery in D.C.,” said Fagar.

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Now some lawmakers on Capitol Hill are trying to help.

“It’s an opportunity to teach history,” said Senator Sherrod Brown, (D) Ohio.

Senator Brown reintroduced the African American Burial Grounds Preservation Act, in February.

If passed, it would set aside $3 million annually for the next five years to help communities research, identify, survey and preserve Black cemeteries.

“So many of the achievements of this country, especially for African Americans have been far too often forgotten,” said Senator Brown.

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Senator Brown said the bipartisan bill is cosponsored with Republican Senator Mitt Romney. He said the legislation was inspired by a 2019 visit to a Black cemetery in Ohio.

Brown said he’s optimistic it’ll pass with bipartisan support.

“This, this can be such a tangible look at what we have here what you physically can see,” said Senator Brown.

Fagar said federal support is desperately needed. She said support is needed not just to protect these burial sites but to help uncover the history left behind.

“I know there are connections with the enslaved, the free and the white people and so I would love to connect the dots, this is history, this is going to tell us a story, we shouldn’t be hiding or be afraid, we should want to know the truth,” said Fagar.

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