Even In Death, Black Americans Denied Dignified RestRoundup
tags: historic preservation, African American history, cemeteries
Greg Melville is the author of Over My Dead Body: Unearthing the Hidden History of America’s Cemeteries.
At 106 years old, Benjamin Prine was the last living person born into slavery on Staten Island when he died in October 1900. He was laid to rest at the Second Asbury A.M.E. Cemetery on the borough’s North Shore, alongside the remains of an estimated 1,000 other people, many formerly enslaved and nearly all Black.
Today there’s no sign at the corner of Livermore and Forest Avenues of his grave or the burial ground that holds his remains. There are no memorials or historical markers to tell the story about how, at one time, 20 percent of Staten Island’s population consisted of enslaved people. Instead, Mr. Prine lies beneath the cracked asphalt of a strip mall parking lot. In 1950 the property where the cemetery stood was seized by the City of New York for unpaid taxes, and it was eventually sold to developers. Its existence was all but forgotten.
A staggering number of America’s Black burial grounds like the one on Staten Island have been erased from history — some the result of neglect by local governments, others through sale to developers. Gravesites on private land within the boundaries of old plantations have been deliberately hidden and forgotten. Many of those clinging to existence face the constant threat of destruction in the absence of funding to maintain them and state or federal laws to shield them from the encroachment of highways, office parks and parking lots.
Nowhere does America’s past come more alive than in our burial grounds. As they quietly mark time, they keep an unflinching record of events. They offer more than just clues to the lives of the people lying within them. They stand as remarkable displays of American art, architecture, literature, war, music, economics, landscaping, public health, death, life and — as uncomfortable as it may be to confront — injustice.
More than six million people died while enslaved within the boundaries of today’s United States, according to a recent article by a demographic historian at the University of Minnesota. Yet only a tiny fraction of their graves can be found today, too often lost beneath industrial complexes, golf courses, hospitals and even municipal buildings. Black cemeteries that were established on the land of Black churches or created by Black citizens after emancipation have faced similar struggles. Indeed, New York City’s desecration by construction extends far beyond Mr. Prine’s resting place on Staten Island.
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