As of late, the GOP has been using Critical Race Theory, which is the analysis of how United States laws perpetuate systemic racism against Black Americans, primarily hypothesized in law school, as a red herring to fuel their base for the upcoming mid-term election season. School districts across the country and several GOP governors have signed legislation that bans Critical Race Theory from being taught in public and private schools. Principally this red herring discussion is an impotent one because Critical Race Theory is not a discipline that is currently a part of the fundamental formal general education. Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a subject that third year law students are exposed to at a law university because it is congruent with American law.
While the discussion of CRT takes center stage and parent-teacher association meetings, it is the deﬁnition of the subject that gets lost in translation. Many opponents of CRT deﬁne it as a movement to rewrite American history and vilify White Americans, flipping anthropological and historical research upon its ears. This is not factual, yet the GOP is using rhetoric such as this as a talking point to rally likeminded individuals in their party. However, putting the ideological concept of Critical Race Theory (CRT) aside, there is an ongoing problem of systemic racism in the United States. It is not an inconclusive hypothesis nor is systemic racism a relic of the distant past. Evidence of the lethal power of systemic racism and the multigenerational effects of it can be linked from the past to the present day.
Governor Ron DeSantis signed legislation this month that established the “Abandoned African American Cemeteries Task Force” which held its ﬁrst meeting last week. The purpose of the task force is to study, identify, and preserve African American cemeteries and burial grounds that have been abandoned or uncared for. After discoveries of human remains across the state of Florida, archeologists, historians, and family members concur that there are approximately three thousand African American burial grounds that have been left unprotected by the state of Florida. These burial grounds and cemeteries are now residing underneath parking garages, gas stations, schools, residential apartments, and other commercial developments. How did this happen? When African slaves arrived in America and subsequently died, slave owners reserved a plot of land sometimes on a secluded section of the plantation for burial. The land was considered “marginal” or least likely for development or usage. H.B. 37 details that “slaveholders often controlled where and how the dead were buried and prohibited burials on valuable land. As a result, slave burial grounds were often conﬁned to remote areas or marginal property.”
Researcher Elsie Clews Parsons revealed that “hidden away in remote spots among trees and underbrush. In the middle of some ﬁelds are islands of large trees the owners preferred not to make arable, because of the exhaustive work of clearing it. Old graves are now in among these trees and surrounding underbrush.” Other slave burials took place in wooded areas where traditional African rituals in honoring the dead were practiced. Oftentimes, deceased slaves were not afforded the courtesy of a headstone. Grave markers such as wood or stone slabs with engraved names or some without, metal pipes, and wooden staffs. Many graves ere not marked with objects at all. There were those ﬁnal resting places that were marked by plants such as yucca, "ragged patches of live-oak and palmetto and brier” speciﬁcally placed to “keep spirits in” the burial area according to African traditions. Sea shells were also used as burial markers. Sea shells represented the water by way the enslaved African arrived from Africa to America. Bottles, ceramics, religious talisman, and other items have been excavated from burial grounds. Historians note that slaves and their descendants would place these upon the grave site as markers.
Most slave burials took place at night or were held on Sundays so that slaves from surrounding plantations could attend. Archeologists suggest that there could very well be thousands of forgotten African American cemeteries and burial grounds due to the practices of segregation, even in death. While even the oldest of White cemeteries are registered, and protected by states, African American cemeteries are not. There is a distinct difference between White cemeteries and African American cemeteries. Researchers have discovered that while segregation and racism fundamentally is the distinguishing factor between both, there are other noticeable factors. White cemeteries were designed to create a park-like simulation of death through the lush landscaping and the orchestral placement of greenery, whereas abandoned African American cemeteries. Archeologist Cynthia Connor stated in her research ﬁndings on the subject that “the romanticization of the landscape is intended to create heaven on earth in the cemetery grounds and deny the blunt reality of death. This is initially accomplished through placement [of the white cemetery] in a favorable location.” With African American cemeteries, on the other hand, there is not a “denial of death” no attempts to plant trees or other greenery. That is why the label of ‘abandoned’ is attached to African American cemeteries because in comparison to White cemeteries, African America burial grounds appear unkempt or manicured.
With the ending of the Civil War and slavery, African Americans continued to bury their deceased loved ones in the same cemeteries set aside for slaves right through the early part of the twentieth century. “African American families continued to face restrictions on where they could bury their dead. Across much of the United States, local laws segregated burial sites by race.” However, many of these burial sites were on properties owned by White landowners. Some would say that blatant disrespect for African Americans or racism chiefly resulted in these same properties being sold over and over by realty companies oftentimes with the knowledge that African American burial grounds exist on the land. It is true that there are many African American cemeteries and burial grounds that are not physically or digitally documented, however, African American families have passed down details of burial sites and the ﬁnal resting places of loved ones from one generation to the next. Case in point in Tampa historians have found a total of nine ‘abandoned’ or forgotten African American burial grounds. Ridgewood Cemetery sits underneath C. Leon King High School. Family members with loved ones buried at Ridgewood have acknowledged for years that the African American cemetery existed in the area. Not until radar evidence was presented in 2019 was the assumption veriﬁed. There could be upwards of 300 bodies on the property. The land that the cemetery was on was sold to a private land developer who sold it to the school district in 1960. In Jacksonville, historic headstones from Eastport Cemetery, were uncovered during a road construction project. Many African American World War II veterans are buried there. Tallahassee has seen the unearthing of several ‘abandoned’ African American burial grounds. The New Hope Cemetery, located on Miccosukee Trail, has become the scenic destination spot for outdoor activities over the years. But no one knew until recently that the trail runs directly through the slave cemetery where now the only visible headstone remaining in the slave is that of Mary Payne. Also, in Tallahassee, an unmarked slave cemetery resides on the green at Capital City Country Club. Radar has located approximately 40 remains so far.
With there being surmised 3,000 or more ‘abandoned’ African American cemeteries across the state of Florida, the “Abandoned African American Cemeteries Task Force” is necessary. Experts believe that gravesites are forgotten for many reasons due to communities and relatives dying out or the lack of accurate records. The evidence shows that while a great number of African American cemeteries were undocumented, there were oral histories that established they were indeed in existence. But in the minds of the descendants of the founders of systemic racism, the decaying bodies of those slaves who engaged in the building and sustaining of America were as meaningless to them in death as in life. That is why these sacred mounds are underneath highways for vehicles to drive upon, or under commercial structures of commerce, trampled upon unknowingly daily by residents, or enjoyed as a part of recreational activities by way of man-made lakes and resorts. As in life, the bodies of deceased African Americans can be auctioned off or sold for a price with little regard, respect, or honor.
The ten member “Abandoned African American Cemeteries Task Force” has a deadline of January 2022 to create and maintain “a network of previously abandoned, underserved, and other African American burial grounds” to help “communities identify and record burial grounds and preserve local history while better informing development decisions and community planning.” The ‘U.S. African American Burial Grounds Network’ will “provide technical assistance to and work in partnership with the public, Federal, State, local, and Tribal governments, other public entities, educational institutions, and private nonproﬁt organizations in identifying, documenting, preserving, searching, evaluating, and interpreting African American burial grounds.” With the advancement of this new legislation, historic African American cemeteries in Florida long forgotten and desecrated will receive the honor and respect they so deserve.