Marking Forgotten Slave Burial Sites, Online | KUOW News and Information

Marking Forgotten Slave Burial Sites, Online

Mar 24, 2013
Originally published on March 24, 2013 4:07 pm

It all started on a former plantation in Tennessee. That's where Sandra Arnold's great-grandfather, Ben Harmon, who was born a slave, is buried next to his wife, Ethel. Their final resting spots are clearly marked, gravestone and all, but next to them, Arnold noticed an entire area of unmarked slave graves. She wondered if they could be family, too.

Her research started on that plot, then expanded to the state of Tennessee. Eventually, Arnold learned that it wasn't uncommon to find unmarked slave burial places across the country.

"Most grave sites of enslaved African-Americans are abandoned, unmarked, or forgotten," Arnold tells Don Gonyea, host of weekends on All Things Considered. "It's not the case for all of them, but it's the case for most of them."

Arnold, a student at Fordham University, is now working on the first national online database of sites where enslaved African-Americans were buried. The database is being built with a team of advisers from Fordham and Yale University. They are taking submissions at VanishingHistory.org.


Interview Highlights

On her first visit to the site

"It was just through a conversation I had with my great-aunt who still lives in Tennessee. My great-grandfather is her father. ... She is 99 [years old]. She will be 100 in June. She is the youngest of his children. She talked about the site a lot. She basically took responsibility, along with some other individuals, to take care of the site. Just through some conversations that she and I had, I decided to go out and visit it. ... It was much bigger than I expected. I tell people all the time that you know, when I got there, I remember thinking, 'Wow, this is my family.'"

On VanishingHistory.org

"Right now, we are just focusing on collecting information from the public. So, our project, it relies a lot on the public to give us information on the location of the burial sites, and we have a submission page there where people can give us information, and we take information on any type of site regardless of the size of it, regardless if it is abandoned, unmarked. ... We are hoping that this registry that we are creating will be a great genealogy tool for families, but also historians and scholars will also find it useful as well."

On Ben Harmon, Arnold's great-grandfather

"Unfortunately, by the time he was emancipated, he had experienced a lot of the typical horrors of slavery. I think he had witnessed his mother being sold. Most of his siblings had been sold, and his father, unfortunately, had died on the particular plantation he worked. But in spite of all of that, what I hear so much about him is that he grew to be a man who was generous, and kind, and my family says he made chairs, and benches and rocking chairs by hand."

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DON GONYEA, HOST:

This next story started on a former plantation in Tennessee. That's where Sandra Arnold's great-grandfather, born a slave, is buried next to his wife. Their final resting spots are clearly marked, gravestone and all, but next to them, Arnold noticed an entire area of unmarked graves of former slaves.

SANDRA ARNOLD: I became obviously more inquisitive in wanting to know if some of those people were members of my own family.

GONYEA: Her research started right there in that spot, then expanded to the entire state of Tennessee. And eventually, Arnold learned that this is a problem across the country. Gravesites of enslaved African-Americans are abandoned, unmarked or forgotten.

ARNOLD: It's the case for most of them, and so it was disheartening.

GONYEA: Now, Arnold is working on the first national online database of enslaved African-American burial sites. As a student at Fordham University, along with a team of advisers, she's building the database, which can be found at VanishingHistory.org. She starts by telling us how she first learned about her great-grandparents' burial site.

ARNOLD: It was just through a conversation I had with my great-aunt who still lives in Tennessee. My great-grandfather is her father. She is 99. She'll be 100 in June. She talked about the site a lot. She basically took responsibility, along with some other individuals, to take care of the site. And just through some of the conversations that she and I had, I decided to go out and visit it.

GONYEA: Tell me about that first visit there.

ARNOLD: I guess I was expecting a pretty small family plot, and it was much bigger than I expected. I tell people all the time that, you know, when I got there, I remember thinking, wow, this is my family. This isn't Alex Haley. This isn't "Roots." But, like, this is actually my family that I'm looking at.

GONYEA: And as you go from one generation to the next, to the next, to the next, there's no one to tell you to go check out this gravesite.

ARNOLD: No. Exactly. And that's why I was extremely grateful for my great-aunt and other members of my community like her who have never forgotten. And they've protected the location of a lot of these sites and the identity of the people lying in these graves just through their own memory.

GONYEA: So tell me a bit more about the database itself. How does it work? Who can use it?

ARNOLD: Right now, we're just focusing on collecting information from the public. So our project, it relies a lot on the public to give us information on the location of the burial sites. And we have a submission page there where people can give us information, and we take information on any type of site regardless of the size of it, regardless if it is abandoned, unmarked.

GONYEA: Is the main audience researchers, historians, or is it families?

ARNOLD: We're hoping that this registry that we're creating will be a great genealogy tool for families, but also historians and scholars will also find it useful as well.

GONYEA: Tell us something about your great-grandfather and great-grandmother.

ARNOLD: Unfortunately, by the time he was emancipated, he had experienced a lot of the typical horrors of slavery. I think he had witnessed his mother being sold. Most of his siblings had been sold. And his father, unfortunately, had died on the particular plantation he worked. But in spite of all of that, what I hear so much about him is he grew to be a man that was generous and kind. And my family says he made chairs, and he made benches and rocking chairs by hand.

GONYEA: And what was his name, and what was your great-grandmother's name?

ARNOLD: My great-grandmother's name was - her name was Ethel. And his name was Ben, Ben Harmon.

GONYEA: Ben Harmon.

ARNOLD: Mm-hmm.

GONYEA: Sandra Arnold is a history student at Fordham University in New York and has launched the first national database of buried slaves. You can find it at VanishingHistory.org. Sandra, thanks for joining us.

ARNOLD: Oh, thank you.

GONYEA: And thanks for listening. This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.