As we detailed recently in our article on Juneteenth, the burial sites of enslaved people and historically Black cemeteries have been systemically lost, destroyed, or threatened for decades. The Black Cemetery Network is part of an ongoing national effort to document and preserve these sacred sites. Currently comprised of 13 cemeteries throughout the eastern and southern United States, the network works to counter the erasures and silencings of African American communities by connecting people and ongoing projects. Their archive contains fascinating stories about people, places, and families that are often missing from larger public narratives about American history.

We had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with the founding director of the BCN, Dr. Antoinette Jackson, to speak on their critical work.* Dr. Jackson is a professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida and director of the USF Heritage Research Lab. Her current research focuses on heritage studies, tourism, the social construction of race, and African American and diasporic culture. Dr. Jackson’s most recent books include Heritage, Tourism, and Race: The Other Side of Leisure (2020) and Speaking for the Enslaved: Heritage Interpretation at Antebellum Plantation Sites (2012).

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A Conversation with Dr. Antoinette Jackson of the Black Cemetery Network

Slave cemetery, location unknown. Image via Chris Farmer.

Could you tell us a bit about your research and how it relates to the BCN?

The Black Cemetery Network is the culmination of a lot of different projects over the last twenty years. As an anthropologist, I’ve always been interested in untold stories—particularly those of African American communities. My research has always led me to cemeteries when I have to find out more about a particular community or the history of a place. That is where a lot of information is preserved. For example, I’ve worked with the National Park Service to document historically underrepresented communities and found out so much by visiting different cemeteries and talking to people about their connections to them.

The inspiration for the BCN also goes back to when I first started at the University of South Florida in the mid-2000s. I created the Heritage Research Lab and was asked by the state to investigate a cemetery at a former reform school called the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. There were all kinds of horrifying issues of abuse and neglect, as well as questions about who was buried there. I became part of a team interviewing relatives and those impacted by what happened at the school. Making those kinds of historical and living connections throughout my career really led me here. The Black Cemetery Network puts these things—the supplemental research and stories I’ve collected—front and center. It’s really, really exciting in that way because it gives the true emphasis to the cemeteries and the people in them.

How was Black Cemetery Network founded?

The BCN is rooted in the African American Burial Ground Project, an ongoing research study which addresses the erasure of historic Black sites in the Tampa Bay area. The University of South Florida released a call to action about systemic racism and the neglect of African American history, which started a conversation about what we were doing internally to address the big gap of whose knowledge got elevated on campus. They issued a series of grants, and I decided to put together a research team. We decided to focus on the materials of a colleague, who was in the process of confirming that one of the housing complexes was located on top of a cemetery.

As an anthropologist, I wanted to know how the living would respond and not just confirm the material record. Of course, knowing who is buried there is important, but it doesn’t completely fill that gaping hole. So we proposed and got funding for a project in which we focused on the living communities that are associated with that burial ground, as well as other cemeteries in the St. Petersburg area such as Evergreen and Oaklawn. That work put us in the center of conversations as to what’s going on locally in Florida, as well as nationally in regards to the broader study of African American cemeteries and things like federal legislation. We’re now part of a larger focus, which is so important because these issues are happening everywhere. It’s really exciting now to use this project to get others involved.

Map depicting the locations of Oaklawn, Evergreen & Moffett Cemetery using a 1923 map overlay

What kind of work does the BCN do? 

The Black Cemetery Network is just that: a network. The process for registering a cemetery is now automated. If someone has a cemetery they want to register on the network, there are instructions on our website to collect their information. They can fill out the form, or they can contact us and we will reach out to them. Once people submit that, we internally work to make sure that they are legitimately representing the site and are willing to take on responsibility for it. It is low key, but we do this just to ensure that everybody understands what’s going on.

Creating a public network has challenged us to think about different ways of how we represent these cemeteries and provide support for those who care for them. We eventually want to expand it, but our website currently has a map and an interactive gallery where visitors can find out more about the places that have already been registered. It also has a members-only section, where members can talk about things that are only available to other people who are doing that kind of work. There may also be some point in time where we have databases and materials that are going to be only available to those on the members page to help them in their efforts to protect and preserve these sacred sites.

Current map of the Black Cemetery Network

The state of historical Black cemeteries is a nationwide issue, although there are also many local conditions that contribute to their abandonment. What are the biggest threats you have seen in Florida, where many cemeteries in the BCN are located? 

Many conditions are certainly not unique to Florida. From what I can tell so far in our research, many active cemeteries were deliberately destroyed because of the drive to develop the land (i.e. catering to tourism and building highways). However, Florida is also unique or at least, specific. They [i.e. entities like the state government] knew that it was military there when they built housing complexes in the 1950s, and they knew where cemeteries were and paved over them anyway because of the desire to attract certain types of populations to Florida. They wanted growth in ways that were always greater than any concerns about a Black cemetery.

 We have to be careful because calling cemeteries abandoned sort of gives you an idea that people gave up and didn’t care. But that’s just not true, communities did care. Those cemeteries just didn’t receive the same dedicated resources as other burial grounds or were forgotten as the original communities were displaced by that same rapid development. 

It’s also important to acknowledge the role that resource disparities have played. Eventually, people couldn’t pay anymore to keep them up, so abandoned in this context basically means ‘economically ran out of money.’ We have to be careful because calling cemeteries abandoned sort of gives you an idea that people gave up and didn’t care. But that’s just not true, communities did care. Those cemeteries just didn’t receive the same dedicated resources as other burial grounds or were forgotten as the original communities were displaced by that same rapid development.

There seems to be more momentum to care for these sites, such as the African American Burial Grounds Network bill that was introduced in Congress last year and there are other efforts to raise awareness of Black cemeteries. What protections or approaches would you like to see going forward?

Mount Zion Cemetery in Washington DC. Image via NCinDC.

We should all support national legislation. The Black Cemetery Network is here saying, “If you build it, they will come!” That bill in question passed the Senate, so I anticipate that it will make it through one day. I’m not sure when, but one of the things they’ve been tasked with is to create databases and identify where materials and people are working on these issues are located. That is great, but also, why do we have to wait for that type of legislation? We can start and actually use our work and advocacy to push the legislation. The mission of the BCN is to make these broader protections happen. We don’t have to wait for them!

 We’re trying to give people a place to have conversations and bring these issues into their consciousness so then they can ask questions and be able to follow the trail to something particular that maybe they can do. 

The Black Cemetery Network recently launched the hashtag #BlackGravesMatter. How do you understand the role of social media in this work? 

#blackgravesmatter via the Black Cemetery Network Instagram

Of course, we don’t want to contribute to sensationalism (such as the hypervisibility of violence against Black people that you often see on the internet). But we do want to make these places visible and social media is a great way to do that. I see it as a form of education. It’s important for people to be able to see this happen again and again and say, “That is not okay, I want to do something.”  Maybe then they realize that there is a cemetery right down the street from them or that they can call these people who are working on something, which they didn’t know before.

We’re trying to give people a place to have conversations and bring these issues into their consciousness so then they can ask questions and be able to follow the trail to something particular that maybe they can do.

A big part of cemetery preservation is local communities coming together and saying ‘we care about the places and are going to save them.’ If someone knows of a cemetery that is threatened, what are the steps they can take to help? 

Many cemeteries are associated with a church or other entity. I would say take a look to see if a church or community organization is already affiliated with the site. You want to do due diligence to make sure that someone is not already doing something that is not visible and just rush in to do the same work. Oftentimes, these smaller entities don’t have money to publicly advertise what they’re doing, so we need people to do a little bit of basic research to see what’s happening and pay attention in a more critical way. Knock on doors, if you have to—there’s a beauty in that kind of local work.

Next, I would suggest getting onto the BCN website and seeing if there is anyone working on a cemetery close to you. You can start a conversation with us and a member of our team can consult with the group in question and walk them through specific steps like involving local archaeologists or other resources. Public archaeology or history networks in your town or state may already have records about that site, which is why early research is so important to discover what other folks may know about the place.

Zion Cemetery, Tampa Bay, Florida

People also need to remember that none of us work alone. Check in with others because there is a high probability that there are people who may not have resources but definitely have a vested interest in that cemetery (such as ancestors buried there). You don’t want to just take over. We’ve seen multiple clashes across the country over what to do with what was labelled as an ‘abandoned’ cemetery because one group didn’t check in with different communities about the work that was being done. It’s all about collaboration, collaboration, collaboration.

We are so grateful to Dr. Jackson for taking the time to speak with us and shining a light on these injustices. Black cemeteries are testimonies to not only our history, but the many facets of Black life. They deserve everything we can give them. To find out more and get involved in the Black Cemetery Network’s groundbreaking work, visit their website and check out their Instagram. If you’d like to read more broadly on the relationship between racism and cemetery destruction, we recommend Amber Butts’ piece in Zora and Lynn Ranville’s Hidden History: African American Cemeteries in Central Virginia.


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