Old quilts and summer chills
In early April, my family joined a funeral procession that led to Center Cemetery in New Milford, Connecticut where my father was laid to rest with military honors. He was buried next to his immediate family and near his ancestors whose birth and death dates span over 200 years. It was a raw, cold day and we were broken-hearted. After eighty-eight years on this earth, seven children, two wars, two heart surgeries and a year of suffering, there was no doubt that he had earned some rest but we were still not ready to lose him. He mattered to us. His life is forever interwoven with the lives of his extended family.
Three months later I found myself at Fordham University in New York. I was there to meet Sandra Arnold, the founding director of the Burial Database Project of Enslaved African Americans. Sandra has assembled a talented team “to create the first and only national registry for the burial documentation of enslaved Americans [which] will be publicly accessible and a valuable research tool for scholars, historians and institutions interested in reconstructing the history of American slavery. Most importantly, the registry will provide crucial genealogical assistance to those seeking to restore families separated by the institution of American Slavery.” To hear more of Sandra’s fascinating story on NPR, check out: http://www.npr.org/2013/03/24/175141077/marking-forgotten-slave-burial-sites-online
Just a few days after meeting with Sandra Arnold, historian and writer Theresa Guzman Stokes brought me to God’s Little Acre Cemetery in Newport, Rhode Island where African Americans have been laid to rest since the early 18th century. These burial sites are already in the National Registry, thanks to Theresa and her husband Keith Stokes who together have researched, written, lectured and educated the public on the African American experience from colonial days through Newport’s Gilded Age to the present. Theresa’s knowledge is boundless and her enthusiasm is captivating. She reminded me that cemeteries are places of history- for the living to remember the past. Check out some of the Stokes’ work at: www.colonialcemetery.com
I learned from these two scholars that these burial sites are critically endangered and, without them, our full history has not been told. “[Burial sites] have 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 as when construction crews accidentally exhume bodies when building a shopping mall.” – New York Times, March 18, 2013
Nationally, we need to pay much more attention to this or we risk losing a full, robust and finely-grained historic picture. My grandmother’s quilts remind me of this: the bold colors and patterns represent wars, migrations, great leaders, and major milestones. But the individual threads represent the fragile, individual lives that contributed daily to the larger picture. If these threads are missing or frayed, the larger picture is blurred and unclear.
Seeing samples of the individual records sent to Sandra Arnold for the national database sent chills up my spine – as did hearing Theresa unpack the narrative of an entire life by looking at one stone. The interconnectedness made possible by modern technology allows these scholars to reach back and reclaim the individual dignity and the missing pieces of history that remain buried in sites across the country. Their work will make a far better American historic quilt by reversing the fraying and tears and by making the colors more refined and vibrant. If we fail to support such efforts not only will it be a failure to provide the absolute minimum amount of dignity and respect to our forbears, but also a failure to weave in precious pieces of genealogy and key pieces of the “narrative of our nation.”
It did not occur to me on that sad, cold April afternoon that there was privilege in that moment for my family and for most modern Americans. There is no doubt in my mind or heart that the Americans who lie in unmarked graves in this country matter as my father mattered. They raised families and food, built buildings, fought wars and provided the critical labor without which this country could not have survived and grown to wealth and strength. The absence of basic searchable information about these lives is like pages and chapters ripped from our history book. After meeting with these two scholars, the importance of their work became even more clear to me. It matters to not only direct descendants but also everyone who believes we should keep our full history from fraying into a blur.
~ Mary Anthony, August 3, 2015
For more information, http://www.periwinkleinitiative.org
The Periwinkle Initiative is a public humanities and education initiative with the important mission of building the National Burial Database of Enslaved Americans (NBDEA) – the first and only national database to document individual burials and burial grounds of enslaved Americans. The Periwinkle Initiative also advocates for public policy that protects the burial grounds and recognizes their historical significance.
The Periwinkle Initiative derives its name from the flower that certain scholars believe was the most common wildflower brought to gravesites of enslaved Americans. This perennial flower has guided researchers to many abandoned burial grounds that would have otherwise gone undetected. The resilient Periwinkle is a perfect symbol to represent the endurance of enslaved Americans and their legacy.