They’ve been bulldozed over by shopping centers, crept over by weeds and forgotten by time. Across the country, from Lower Manhattan to the Deep South, are unmarked slave burial sites, often discovered only by chance or by ignominious circumstance like when construction crews accidentally exhume bodies when building a shopping mall.
Compounding the problem of preserving and locating slave graveyards, is that there is no comprehensive list of where they are and who lies within them. The situation troubled Sandra Arnold, 50, a history student at Fordham University’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies, who traces her ancestry to slaves in Tennessee.
“The fact that they lie in these unmarked abandoned sites,” Ms. Arnold said, “it’s almost like that they are kind of vanishing from the American consciousness.”
Last month, Fordham introduced Ms. Arnold’s proposed solution, the Burial Database Project of Enslaved African Americans, a Web portal that invites visitors to input information about the whereabouts and residents of slave graveyards across the country. The goal is to create a user-generated database of these sites all over the United States.
Though there are other similar projects, most are conducted on a regional level, or do not focus specifically on places slaves were buried. Find a Grave, a database used by many tombstone hobbyists and amateur genealogists, lists hundreds of thousands of plots, including those belonging to slaves. In 2001, in an effort to avoid disturbing burial grounds during a property boom, Prince William County in Virginia began collecting locations, joining private initiatives in Maryland, to catalog all of the estimated 6,000 to 9,000 slave burial sites in the state.
But still slave graveyards risk being trampled by time and construction. One of the most notable examples was in Lower Manhattan, where construction of a federal office building was halted in 1991 after the discovery of bones 24 feet below the surface. Just 419 bodies were discovered, though estimates of how many free and enslaved blacks were buried there range from 10,000 to 20,000. The African Burial Ground, as it was named, is now a national historic landmark.
Just last year, construction was held up for a new Walmart in Florence, Ala., after local residents protested that it would overlap with hidden burial sites.
“There is certainly a very important national need; it’s more than just an academic exercise,” said Lynn Rainville, a research professor at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, and an adviser to the database.
For Ms. Arnold it is also personal. The idea was born two years ago after visiting a Tennessee cemetery where her great-grandfather, who was born a slave, is buried. It was adrift in the middle of a field, she said, hardly the hallowed space that cemeteries typically are. “The fact that enslaved African Americans don’t have that sort of dignity,” she said, “it bothered me.”
The project’s ambition – to be a comprehensive database for the country – is hampered in part both by the fact that slaves were often perfunctorily buried and by historical quirk: headstones were a luxury in many Southern areas and both enslaved and free people were often buried with plain stone markers or none at all.
“A huge number of old cemeteries, even from the 19th century, are simply lost in the landscape,” Eric G. Grundset, the director of the Library of the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution, who has traveled the country researching the legacy of blacks in the war, said in an e-mail. “Memory is usually the primary source for locating such spots, so this project will rely very heavily on that for results.”
The database is still in its infancy, with just over a dozen entries uploaded since it began about a month ago. Irma Watkins-Owens, an associate professor of history and African-American studies at Fordham, is a co-director, along with advisers from Yale and Emory universities and the College of William and Mary.
Ms. Arnold, who also works as a secretary for the African studies department at Fordham, said it was entirely dependent upon word of mouth for contributions. Researchers with reams of information may find the system somewhat unwieldy since it requires data to be inputted piece by piece.
Still, the news of the database excited preservationists like Lisa Martin Sanders for its potential. Two years ago, Ms. Sanders rediscovered and began to rehabilitate a rundown cemetery where her ancestors and an estimated 1,500 other slaves were buried in Sanford, N.C., now called the Black Heritage Community Cemetery. She’s working on her next.
“I thought it was awfully sad that people can get thrown away,” she said. “If we have somewhere we can go and actually look and research this information, we can better understand who we are,” she added. “If we lose that, where are we?”