In Lower Manhattan, people in suits walk past a green space with a modest stone monument en route to the city’s major courthouses. They rarely stop to notice the African Burial Ground National Monument, marking the historic site where more than 15,000 Africans were buried when the city banned slave burials in church cemeteries.
The cemetery was discovered during a construction project in 1991 and declared a National Historic Landmark in 1993. Yet it took more than a decade of policy and preservation work before the National Park Service (NPS) n opens the site as a national monument.
Now, black church leaders are pressuring the federal agency to develop more memorials like this. They want to mark black history on public lands, and they have specific places in mind like the site of the 2015 church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina.
This month, leaders of some of the largest black Protestant denominations and several state Baptist conventions made overtures to the park service to commemorate a site linked to the 1908 Springfield race riots in Illinois. The NPS, which oversees historical markers and memorials on public lands, such as the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC, currently has no sites documenting lynchings or massacres of African Americans.
Separately, in a new survey by the National Religious Partnership for the Environment (NRPE), 700 black church leaders listed their suggestions for possible memorial sites, noting that they felt their past contribution on public lands had been ” politely ignored”.
Among the most popular responses were sites honoring black leaders such as Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson and Frederick Douglass, as well as designations for historically black colleges and universities, many of which stem from church theological education programs. local.
The number one church leader at the site they said should be preserved to highlight atrocities against the black community was the Emanuel African Methodist (AME) Episcopal Church in Charleston, where a white supremacist killed nine Afro -Americans gathered for a Bible study in 2015. They also mentioned documenting the 1906 Atlanta race riot, the Colfax massacre of 1873, and the Rosewood massacre of 1923.
“We didn’t provide them with a checklist. … Having something named multiple times, for me, is a big deal,” said Cassandra Carmichael, chief executive of NRPE. “Now we’re going to dig into some of these places to find out what we could say, what we could defend to be protected.”
Creation of a new area under the National Park Service requires review by the NPS and approval by Congress or the President. The park service is studying other recommended African-American monuments and is looking for a site to commemorate the race riots in Springfield over the past five years, according to NPS associate regional director Tokey Boswell.
The proposed site in Springfield, a few blocks from the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, would mark the remains of five houses destroyed during the violence.
The 1908 Springfield brutality stemmed from an accusation that a black man assaulted a white woman, inciting white Springfield residents to mob violence. They burned down black houses and lynched black men, and 2,000 black residents fled the city for good.
“Through our faith, we look forward to an exceptional future,” Baptist General State Convention of Illinois leader Mark A. McConnell wrote in his letter to the NPS. The convention was founded in 1902, in a church a few blocks from the proposed site of the monument. “We know we can achieve redemption as a nation for racial injustices committed if we as a nation confess and acknowledge the true course of events and the impacts they have had.”
The denominational leaders who wrote the NPS about a national monument in Springfield represented millions of worshippers, including the presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ, the bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church of Zion , the college of bishops of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention and the chairman of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus, among others.
Almost all of the letters noted not only the atrocity of the riot, but also its role in the formation of the NAACP.
“It’s the story that includes raw racism but also exemplifies black agency,” wrote Melvin Owens, president of the Alabama State Baptist Missionary Convention.
All letters were addressed to Boswell of the NPS, who said it was “a very impressive display of black clergy”. The NPS will complete its study next year, and it can give a positive or negative opinion on the site. Then it’s up to Congress or the president to commission a monument. Illinois lawmakers introduced measures in the U.S. House and Senate to create one in Springfield. Each site is unique, Boswell added: “Sometimes Congress will make it a unit as early as next year, … sometimes in 10 years.”
Commemorating such a story is healing for the black community, clergy said, and it can correct national misconceptions.
New York, for example, often lives in denial about its slavery history, but places like the African Burial Ground call attention to that past. Prior to the American Revolution, New York had the largest slave population outside of the South. Slaves built roads like Wall Street and Broadway as well as the city wall.
Slavery existed in this northern state long after the Revolution as well. On Staten Island, black historians have pushed for decades for a small marker to point to a black church cemetery where the last slave born in the borough is buried — a man named Benjamin Prine, who died in 1900. The cemetery has since been paved over and now houses a parking lot for a bank, a 7-Eleven and a paint store.
Richard Dickenson, a black historian from the 1990s, successfully convinced the bank to post a small plaque on the cemetery, but the plaque was later removed. Now another bank has moved in and Dickenson has since died. Another black historian specializing in Staten Island, Debbie-Ann Paige, took up the cause of the cemetery.
Filmmaker and genealogist Heather Quinlan has tracked down the living descendants of Benjamin Prine. They lived a mile from the Staten Island Cemetery but had no idea it existed, that they had buried a slave ancestor there, or that there had even been slavery in New York, Quinlan said.
“We were meant to be… We welcomed the huddled masses!” Quinlan said. “[Slavery] has been [used by] the barbarians of the south. And if we did, it wasn’t so bad.
The NPS cannot do anything on private land, although it has consulted with locals on how they might commemorate the church graveyard. Quinlan and others discussed what the city could do on the sidewalk next to the mall, such as plant a tree or put up a plaque, honoring those buried in the cemetery.
Now the family, historians and Quinlan can celebrate a bit: On October 3, the street that runs along the mall above the cemetery will be co-named Benjamin Prine Way. Quinlan said it would be the first street in New York to be named after a former enslaved New Yorker. Nearby is Van Pelt Avenue, which bears the same name as Prine’s owner, Pastor Peter Van Pelt.
Quinlan has been working on a documentary about the cemetery and is trying to uncover more material about the AME Church there. Researchers know of 50 graves specifically in the churchyard under the sidewalk, but “there could be as many as a thousand,” Quinlan said.
The survey of black pastors frequently mentioned black cemeteries as potential locations for memorials. Like the New York sites, many have been destroyed or paved over for development.
“It would give us comfort to know that the wider culture cares to hear our story and has the courage to be able to listen,” said Gregory Williams of Holsey Temple CME Church in Atlanta.