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Raphael Morris retired from work at a chemical company and committed himself to restoring a historically Black cemetery his relatives were buried at in Missouri. He told NBC News Greenwood Cemetery was covered with trash, furniture, and mattresses. “Sometimes I think certain people will clean out their whole house and dump it in the cemetery,” he said.

The cemetery, founded in 1874, was the first commercial burial land for Black people after the Civil War, according to the cemetery’s website. It is located in Hillsdale, about 10 miles northeast of St. Louis, and it contains the remains of Harriett Scott, the wife of Dred Scott, the enslaved man who launched a lawsuit that rose to the Supreme Court to fight for his freedom. The cemetery holds about 50,000 graves of those buried from 1874 to 1993.

Morris worked with historian Etta Daniels and other residents to form the Greenwood Cemetery Preservation Association and go about the work of restoring the cemetery. They’ve located records for at least 35,000 people, NBC News reported.

How did historic Black cemeteries fall into such disrepair and neglect? Pres. of the Greenwood Cemetery Preservation Association Raphael Morris says, “unlike your confederate cemeteries…Black cemeteries have never had the luxury of having any endowment to maintain the grounds.” pic.twitter.com/u7dxKLnpTC

— AYMAN (@AymanMSNBC) February 12, 2022

“As far as record-keeping, when we first started in 1999, we had nothing,’” Daniels said. “Today, you could give me a name and I can go to the digital records and say, ‘Yes, this person is there.’”

The preservation association is one of several dedicated to preserving Black burial sites throughout the country. “In states like Georgia, Missouri and North Carolina, volunteers are working to clean cemeteries and restore headstones; advocates in Virginia and Louisiana are battling developers to keep Black cemeteries intact; and groups in Texas and Florida are seeking justice for Black burial grounds that were paved over to build properties and highways,” journalist Char Adams wrote.

The need for such restoration is rooted in racism.

Kami Fletcher, an Albright College history professor and president of the decolonization effort dubbed Collective for Radical Death Studies, told NBC News land ownership is “absolutely at the intersection of patriarchy, whiteness, racism and Jim Crow.”

“Jim Crow allowed Black cemeteries to go unkempt, and city dollars flowed to white cemeteries,” Fletcher said. “There’s a lot more to be said about how whites were just allowed to dislocate Black folks and trample all over Black cemeteries.”

Federal legislation to protect Black burial sites has failed to make it out of Congress. The African-American Burial Grounds Network Act, which was introduced in November 2019, directed the National Park Service “to conduct a study of ways to identify, interpret, preserve, and record unmarked, previously abandoned, underserved, or other burial grounds relating to the historic African American experience.” It, however, has since stalled in the House.

Antoinette Jackson, a University of South Florida professor of anthropology, told NBC News there were really no legal protections for Black people and their property. “So cemeteries were one of those things that were unprotected,” she said. “That’s the underpinning of why lands where cemeteries sat were vulnerable.” But Black people are no longer silently tolerating that treatment.

Jackson formed the Black Cemetery Network, and she is working with advocates to bring renewed attention to Florida cemeteries Moffett and Evergreen, which are covered in part by an interstate, and Oaklawn cemetery, which is under a baseball stadium and parking lot, NBC News reported.

The city of St. Petersburg condemned the grounds in 1926 and although city officials are aware of the burial grounds, they haven’t “made any plans for the site at this time.” Janelle Taylor, a spokesperson told NBC News.

The Black Cemetery Network, a collaboration with the University of South Florida, has registered 34 Black cemeteries. “We want a memorial to indicate that this happened in the first place, and then a marker,” Jackson told NBC News. “People want to be involved in the conversations about what the redevelopment efforts are going to be. They want to be part of the planning of what the site could be. Not only do they want a memorial, they want to actually be part of the vision of what’s next.”

What a great way to remember black history! Through restoring the historic graves of our Black ancestors, we can preserve and honor their legacies. 🙏🏾 Thank you for recognizing that Black souls are important in life AND death!! https://t.co/ebunCyA9v8

— Ben Crump (@AttorneyCrump) February 13, 2022

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