In the 1960s, tens of thousands of bodies were disinterred from the African–American Columbian Harmony Cemetery, and the markers were discarded. Now, a set of desecrated headstones from the graves of African- Americans from the mid-1800s and beyond are being returned to their rightful place, The Free Lance-Star reported.
After the cemetery was sold about 60 years ago, the farmer who bought the King George County property saw an advertisement selling the headstones as riprap, another word for irregular stones. The memorials were quickly desecrated and strewn along the shoreline to prevent erosion on the farmer’s property.
Republican Senator Richard Stuart of Virginia and his wife noticed some headstones while taking a stroll in 2016. After enlisting historians to find the history behind the desecrated stones, an ugly truth came to light. While an estimated 37,000 bodies were moved to National Harmony Park in Maryland, their markers were used as field tools.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, in a handing-off ceremony, expressed his intention to some of the descendants to do the right by the desecrated headstones.
“This is really about righting a wrong and doing what’s in the best interest of your families,” Northam said.
The headstones will be taken to the Maryland cemetery.
This is not the first instance of Black cemeteries have been the target of destruction and desecration.
In 2009, authorities uncovered a scheme by cemetery operators outside of Chicago to disinter bodies at a Black cemetery, dump them, and re-sell the burial plots. In 2009, over 200 Black bodies at Burr Oak in Alsip, Illinois, had fallen victim to this ploy before it was uncovered. However, the discovery continued for years, and by 2011, the number had risen to at least 300. Burr Oak is where Emmett Till was buried. Law enforcement admitted that they might never know the true number of bodies that were desecrated.
In 2018, a Black soldier’s grave was desecrated days before Memorial Day. The soldier fought in the Civil War for the Union and was laid to rest in West Nyack, New York.
In March 2020, a Polk County, Florida cemetery that was a segregation-era burial site for African-Americans was vandalized. After descendants returned to the cemetery and saw the horror, the county placed the cemetery under code lock. The local cemetery association does not serve that property, opening it up for not only vandalism but turning into an unkempt eyesore. The county has claimed that they do not know who the deed-owner of the property is.
On August 5, 2021, Tampa created a task force to address abandoned and otherwise desecrated Black cemeteries across Florida. This move came after several hundred graves from Zion Cemetery were found to have apparently had a towing lot built over them.
Due to gentrification, Black cemeteries often become fodder for city development projects. Similar to the Polk County cemetery, cities use a state of disrepair to justify their erasure. However, there is rarely a mandate for the city’s upkeep of the cemeteries.
In 2019, the University of Texas Law School issued a guide to assist citizens in registering and preserving Black cemeteries. Needless to say, it requires significant legwork. However, it preserving as much knowledge of the ancestors as possible is worth the work.
After all of their toil, they deserve to rest in peace.