Vanishing History: Recording African-American Burial Grounds

On a Sunday afternoon in 1992, I was collecting fallen autumn leaves along Chapel Road outside Havre de Grace, Maryland where my grandparents lived. I no longer remember what the leaves were for. My boyfriend lifted me on his shoulders so I could pluck them from the trees along the edge of a dried up soybean field that rested next to the driveway, and is now occupied with vinyl-sided houses. It was a sunny and fresh day.

We crossed the country road to investigate the remnants of a cemetery in the woods that only oral tradition in my family indicated was African-American. This cemetery had an identity connected through oral history to a farm located down the hill toward the Chesapeake Bay since at least the 19th century. The 1878 Martenet Map for the county indicates the Osborns, Matthews, Holloways, and Silvers lived in the immediate area, and further down the road, an African-American family, the Lisbys. On that afternoon in 1992, the cemetery was deep in fallen leaves and debris, as well as tall trees. I tripped – and landed in a depression. Around us, were several sunken graves, perhaps twenty. We found one readable headstone – a name I no longer remember, from a man who served in the USCT in World War I. U.S. Colored Troops.

Vanishing History: Burial Database of Enslaved African Americans is a project of Fordham University. You can visit their website, like I did, and submit information about perhaps forgotten burial grounds of enslaved African Americans. So little of the cemetery across the street from my grandparents’ house survives. My mother indicated that graves were probably destroyed when Chapel Road was paved in the 1970s. It’s imperative to mark these places before more information is lost. I feel some trepidation in highlighting the location; abandoned cemeteries are often subject to vandalism (see my post on my own family’s cemetery recovery project). But the alternative is loss of knowledge and heritage.

Listen to a segment from NPR on the project here.

The Hosanna school near Darlington, in Harford County, Maryland, c. 1867. This was the first school for African-Americans established by the Freedmen’s Bureau in Harford County. Photo: Mike’s History Blog.

About Becky Fifield

Becky Fifield is a cultural heritage professional with 25 years experience in institutions large and small. She is currently Head of Collection Management for the Special Collections of the New York Public Library. An advocate for preventive conservation, Ms. Fifield is a Professional Associate of the American Institute for Conservation, Chair of the AIC Collection Care Network, and former Chair of Alliance for Response NYC. She is also a scholar of 18th century female unfree labor and dress. There's a bit of pun in the title The Still Room, delineating a quiet space brimming with the ingredients of memory, where consideration, analysis, and wordcraft can take place. Ms. Fifield’s interests include museum practice, dress history, historic preservation, transit, social and women’s history, food, current events, geneaology, roadtrips, and considerations on general sense of place. Becky and her husband, Dr. V, live in the Hudson Valley.