February is Black Heritage Month
“Black cemeteries are black history,” says University of South Florida College of Arts and Sciences anthropology professor and chair Dr. Antoinette Jackson.
Jackson founded the Black Cemetery Network (BCN) in 2021, a first-of-its-kind online national network and archive documenting stories and grassroots efforts to uncover and preserve historic black cemeteries across the U.S., many of which she says have been erased or underfunded.
Jackson says the BCN started out with just 11 cemeteries and has now grown to 89 documented cemeteries across 20 different states and Washington, D.C., with steady and continued growth projected.
“Every day and every week people are submitting sites,” Jackson said.
Jackson said the idea to address the issue of “black cemetery erasure” came about from her work as principal investigator on the African American Burial Ground and Remembering Project, a multi-campus, multi-discipline USF faculty-staff-student project that collaborates with Tampa Bay African American communities to recover histories that were paved over. This USF funded research project began in response to a call to action issued by USF to engage in outreach in the community and address issues of anti-black racism.
“People often think of cemeteries as totally in the past, but cemeteries really represent what we want to be about in the future,” Jackson said. “How we honor, memorialize, and remember all our ancestors and sacred sites says a lot about who we are as a people and a community. It’s really central for Black Heritage Month because so much history is contained by knowing about cemeteries.”
Jackson, who most recently made national news in a 60 Minutes interview which highlighted her efforts to recover historic black cemeteries in the Tampa Bay area, has been working with her team to research and collect oral histories associated with Tampa Bay’s first black cemetery, Zion Cemetery. The Zion Cemetery site was later developed over to become the Robles Park Village, a public housing development.
In addition, the team’s work also includes researching, collecting oral histories, and telling the story of Oakland, Evergreen and Moffett cemeteries which have been developed over by a Tropicana Field parking lot and Interstate-275 in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“In the process of doing this work, I started to pay attention to the national conversation. It wasn't just Florida; it wasn't just Tampa. So, the creation of the Black Cemetery Network was a platform for placing this local work into the national conversation of black cemetery erasure and the things that have been happening to black cemeteries,” Jackson said.
The BCN team consists of anthropologists, archaeologists and artists who aim to “reclaim lost histories through preservation and legislative advocacy,” according to their website.
The maintenance of a national database is just one of the current initiatives of the BCN. They also conduct site-specific research on neglected, partially relocated, developed-on or entirely lost black cemeteries. They uncover the stories of those who were buried in those cemeteries through archival data and oral history, according to Jackson.
“We also combine art and research. You’ll even see one of the people on our creative team is a spoken word poet,” she said. “The design of the network shows that we are really interested in aesthetics. I think looking at the team of people that are involved and really dedicated as much as I am to telling these stories and preserving this history and encouraging other people to be involved really speaks for itself.”
Jackson said that the BCN would not be what is today without her team, especially
as the network continues to gain momentum.
“There is a lot of work that needs to be done,” she said. “We have passionate people on the leadership team that really make it all go well. So, I just want to give a big shout out to the whole team that takes time to run this and manage it.”
To join the BCN members must be actively involved with a black cemetery site or sacred space. Those looking to register a site with the BCN and share their story must complete an application for the team to review before it is uploaded and added to the network database.
“These are untold and underrepresented stories,” Jackson said. “The stories of people, communities and connections over multiple generations should not be lost or disregarded because they are not known.”