African American Burial Grounds Preservation Program Created in Omnibus Bill

The Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) thanks the bipartisan group of lawmakers who secured inclusion of the African American Burial Grounds Preservation Act in the omnibus appropriations bill. This bill is expected to be signed into law by President Biden at the end of this week. Five years in the making, the effort in Congress was led by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), Rep. Alma Adams (D-NC), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), and the late Rep. Donald McEachin (D-VA).

The African American Burial Grounds Preservation Program will help identify burial grounds ahead of infrastructure projects and commercial development, thereby minimizing construction delays and avoiding unnecessary community heartache. It will assist descendants and communities in honoring and remembering their shared past by providing grant monies to identify, interpret, and preserve historic cemeteries. These sacred sites, and the stories they tell, are an integral part of our American heritage.

Julie Schablitsky, president of the SHA said, “Society for Historical Archaeology members have advocated for federal leadership to protect and preserve these sacred places. The African American Burial Grounds Preservation Program will support descendant communities and their allies in saving our history, while simultaneously informing development decisions and community planning.”

For five years, members of SHA have lobbied Congress to pass legislation that to protect and preserve historic African American cemeteries. As professional archaeologists and advocates for the legislation, SHA members shared stories of the burial grounds they helped to locate. They spoke about the frustration of being called in to identify burial plots that had already been disturbed by development, and discussed the need to proactively identify sacred spaces.

SHA members highlighted ways for Congress to help communities identify and preserve important historic and cultural landmarks. Several years ago, SHA members visited Rep. Alma Adams and Rep. Donald McEachin on Capitol Hill, who were already familiar with groups in their communities who were preserving historic cemeteries. We offered our assistance to develop legislation, and we are deeply grateful for their leadership.

“We are so thankful to the more than 150 organizations who joined with SHA, the American Anthropological Association and the Coalition for American Heritage to advocate for making preservation of historic African-American cemeteries a federal priority,” said Kelly Lizarraga, Advocacy Director at the law firm Cultural Heritage Partners, which provided government affairs support to the effort.

These cemeteries are sacred places, but their existence often goes unrecognized. Indeed, historic cemeteries are emblematic of the unequal treatment African Americans endured in life and in death. Many African American burial grounds suffered from decades of official neglect and government policies that ignored and devalued their very existence. Families of the deceased were often unable to maintain the gravesites because they were enslaved, lacked ownership of the land, or had no record of where their ancestors were buried. Pre-emancipation genealogical and burial records are especially difficult for African American families to obtain. Burial grounds were frequently segregated by race and unmarked. In many states, local governments have funded the maintenance of Confederate cemeteries but not African American burial grounds.

Many communities across the country are working to reclaim these cemeteries and honor their history. Members of SHA, the American Anthropological Association, and the Coalition for American Heritage are frequently involved in this endeavor. Stakeholder organizations across America joined together to support this effort. We have been joined in our advocacy efforts by the National Parks Conservation Association and the National Trust for Historic Preservation African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. Together with more than 150 groups across the country, we supported this important legislation and advocated for its passage.

Details of the legislation begin on page 2,954 of the fiscal year 2023 omnibus appropriations bill.

For more information, contact:

Kelly Lizarraga, Advocacy Director
Cultural Heritage Partners, PLLC
(703) 913-4818