Rest in peace? Not for many buried in Black cemeteries

Commission to protect Black burial grounds needs to get active

The author's father and sister found the burial sites of two long-dead relatives at this Black cemetery in West Monroe. (Photo courtesy Tammy C. Barney)

Laying Black people to rest doesn’t guarantee their remains will rest in peace. The historical burial grounds for Black people, whether enslaved or free, are always in danger of being bulldozed, desecrated or paved over.

In Louisiana, Plaquemines Liquid Terminal, a joint venture of Tallgrass Energy and Drexel Hamilton Infrastructure Partners, has filed plans to build a $20 million oil export facility over historic slave cemeteries in Plaquemines Parish. The cemeteries were part of St. Rosalie, a sugar plantation along the Mississippi River that was owned and operated by Andrew Durnford, a Black slave owner. Durnford and his family were buried in above-ground tombs on the plantation close to what’s now La. 23. The enslaved people were buried in unmarked graves closer to the river.

According to WWL-TV, thick woods overtook the St. Rosalie Plantation more than 70 years ago,  and there are parish officials who say they didn’t know the Black cemeteries existed. 

But in Ironton, the town South of St. Rosalie built by the formerly enslaved after the Civil War,  residents know exactly where the burial grounds are. Records in the Tulane University Archives list names of workers, including references to the enslaved people who died on the plantation. Official maps in the 1920s and 1940s marked the two cemetery locations, and archaeologists have found almost 13,000 artifacts in the area, including pieces of inscribed tombstones, wood and screws from coffins and three pieces of human bone.

With all this documentation, St. Rosalie Plantation cemeteries should have been designated as historical and sacred burial grounds long ago. I wonder if the parish officials who say they didn’t know of their existence were just looking the other way to better sneak in industry.

It’s time to stop this madness.

How many burial sites are on the land where Formosa Plastics plans to build?

In 2018, the Louisiana Legislature created the Slavery Ancestral Burial Grounds Preservation Commission to develop measures that would preserve and protect unmarked and historic burial grounds, graves, and cemeteries of the formerly enslaved. The 29-member commission has met only once since its inception. We all know that the government moves…very…slowly. Being in the middle of a global pandemic doesn’t help. Still, this commission must do better. Too much is at stake.

The neglect and desecration of these burial grounds isn’t just a Louisiana problem.

In a report on “CBS Sunday Morning” this month, Virginia State Sen. Richard Stuart and his wife Lisa described finding numerous headstones along the Potomac River four years ago.  Since discovering the headstones, “we’ve been working to get them back where they belong,” Stuart told CBS.

Those headstones belonged in the Columbian Harmony Cemetery, which was located in Washington, D.C.  Opened in the late 1850s, the cemetery was the resting place for 37,000 Black residents for almost 100 years. About 60 years ago, the cemetery was sold, and the headstones were sold or given away as scrap. Truckloads of those headstones were used to shore up the Potomac river bank.

Fortunately, there is hope. State and national officials are adopting legislation to protect Black burial grounds. Last year, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bill that addresses at-risk Black cemeteries in South Carolina. This bill also authorizes the Department of the Interior to conduct a comprehensive study of Black burial grounds across the nation. As reported on Smithsonianmag.com, this study would lay the groundwork for Congress to establish the African American Burial Grounds Network, allowing experts to coordinate research efforts, create a nationwide database of Black cemeteries and receive grant funding. The House still must approve the bill.

And here in Louisiana, the commission tasked with protecting these cemeteries must act with urgency.

I would hate to lose an unmarked Black cemetery located in the red-clay hills of West Monroe. My father and sister went there a few years back to search for the graves of his two brothers who died as children before he was born.

Surrounded by a short wire fence and unmaintained, the cemetery is filled with broken headstones and faded grave plates. Any flowers left there had withered long ago. As father and daughter traipsed through tall grass and swatted away bugs, they stumbled upon a small nameplate with a few letters missing. When my sister filled in the blanks, she realized their search was over. They had found the gravesite of Elias Collins, who was born in 1925 and died in 1927. We believe his brother lies next to him in an unmarked grave.

Those graves and that cemetery provide a glorious connection to our family history and the uncles we never knew.

We cannot rest until those buried in historic Black cemeteries can too.  

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Tammy C. Barney
Award-winning columnist Tammy Carter Barney earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from Loyola University New Orleans before starting her career at The Daily Comet in Thibodaux. She covered city government and education, wrote a column and was the first Black woman to work as the paper's managing editor. She worked at The Times-Picayune as a bureau chief, assistant city editor, TV editor and columnist and while there earned a MBA from Tulane University. She left The Times-Picayune for The Orlando Sentinel, where she served as an editor and wrote a weekly column for the lifestyle section. Her writing has won her multiple awards, including the prestigious Vernon Jarrett Award for Journalistic Excellence for a series of columns on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In addition to writing, Tammy is passionate about quilting and singing with the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church Praise Team and Contemporary Choir. She also serves as chair of the New Orleans Human Rights Commission. For 17 years, Tammy was married to the late Keith G. Barney. She has one daughter and one granddaughter.