When black history is discovered, who speaks for the dead?

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It has a slightly different notion of what a descendant community might be. “I looked at the sea of ​​people who were there,” he said. “This country is rooted in the history of slaves. It’s everyone’s story. You can be cynical about any of this, Reaves admitted. It is one thing to pray for the dead; it is another to take care of the living. But Reaves is not cynical. “It’s a door,” he said. “You open it, some of them will go through. The question is, what is on the other side?

God does not have children whose rights can be safely violated.

—Frederick Douglass, 1854.

Samuel Morton, a doctor from Philadelphia, began collecting skulls in 1830. Determined to study the skulls of the five newly classified “races” in the world, he asked distant correspondents to dig up graves and send heads to him. , eventually amassing nearly nine hundred, including, closer to home, those of fourteen blacks from Philadelphia. Morton is buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, under an obelisk bearing the inscription “Where truth is loved or science honored, her name will be worshiped.” In 1854, three years after Morton’s death, Frederick Douglass called his work “scientific moonlight,” but it took more than a century for scientists to disavow the notion of biological race. And yet the calls for the return of these remains are also based on a notion of race.

Christopher Woods, a University of Chicago sumerologist, is the first black director of the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. In April, not yet two weeks after the start of his appointment, the museum issued a statement apologizing “for the unethical possession of human remains in the Morton collection” and pledging to return them “to their own. ancestral communities ”. Penn is not alone. In January, the Harvard president issued a similar apology and instructed a committee to inventory the human remains found in his museums, prioritizing those “people of African descent who were or were likely to have been in. life during the war period of the United States. enslavement. “As Evelynn Hammonds, a science historian who chairs the Harvard committee, told me,” No institution can solve all of these questions on its own. “

But Penn has other problems. Days after Woods’ first apology, the museum released another, this time for preserving the remains of a black child killed by police in 1985 in a raid on the Black Liberation Organization. MOVEMENT. (Police bombed the MOVEMENT house, and eleven people, including five children, were burned alive.) The museum returned these remains to families this summer. As for the rest of the remains, including the Morton collection, “We want to do the right thing,” Woods told me. “We want to be able to repatriate individuals when the descending communities wish. “

During the years Morton was collecting skulls, much of the African American community in Philadelphia buried their dead in a Queen Street cemetery that is now a playground called Weccacoe, for a word by Lenni Lenape which means “peaceful place. “. The day I pulled up there, the playground was a deluge of cups and strollers, buckets of water and tubes of sunscreen, and toddlers playing pirates. Below are thousands of graves.

“I’m just here to complain about the length of that line.”
Caricature by Kaamran Hafeez and Al Batt

Pennsylvania passed a gradual abolition law in 1780, and by the 1990s Philadelphia had a free and flourishing black community, largely centered on what is now the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1810, Bethel church administrators and AME founder Richard Allen purchased a block on Queen Street. Until 1864, the congregation used the land as a burial place and then, in 1889, short of money, sold it to cover the cost of a new church. The cemetery became a park, then a playground. Almost half of the city’s population is black, but the city’s monuments and museums primarily commemorate Benjamin Franklin, the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, and the drafting of the Constitution. Avenging the Ancestors, a coalition formed in 2002 to defend a slavery memorial in the city, took a broad view of the notion of a top-down community, describing its members as “the free black sons and daughters of today.” of yesterday’s’ enslaved black fathers and mothers.

In 2010, Terry Buckalew, an aging independent researcher and anti-war activist, read in the newspaper that the city was on the verge of renovating Weccacoe. “They were going to dig it up,” he told me. “They were going to install new trees, new light poles and a sprinkler. And I said, ‘Oh, no. The bodies are still there! “Three years later, the city conducted a ground-penetrating radar survey and concluded that the site, the Bethel Burying Ground, contained at least five thousand bodies. Buckalew, who is white, spent his retirement researching the lives of the thousands of black people in Philadelphia. I asked him why. “Repairs,” he said. “I firmly believe in repairs.

Reparations are based on arguments relating to inheritance and parentage. But, if genealogy has a new policy, it has always been urgent. After emancipation, people put ads in the newspapers, desperately looking for their children, husbands, wives and parents. “INFORMATION SOUGHT from my mother, Lucy Smith, of Hopkinsville, Ky., formerly Dr Smith’s slave. It was sold to a Mr. Jenks of Louisiana, ”said Ephraim Allen of Philadelphia in the Christian recorder in 1868. Today, remedial genealogy projects looking for descendants are making social media calls and asking people to fill out Google forms. One of the most successful, the Georgetown Memory Project, sought the direct descendants of two hundred and seventy-two slaves sold by the Jesuit Society that ran Georgetown in 1838, mainly to pay off debts. So far, the project, in collaboration with independent researchers and American Ancestors (the country’s oldest genealogical research organization, which has established pedigrees for Mayflower descendants), has located more than eight thousand descendants. In 2019, after a student-sponsored referendum, the university announced a plan to provide four hundred thousand dollars a year in reparations, in the form of “community projects for the benefit of descendant communities.”

Repairs were not the dominant note in Philadelphia over Bethel, perhaps in part because it was the AME Church that sold the cemetery. Still, there has been a lot of controversy, along with the usual and more than usual delays of a complicated town planning process. But last year, the Bethel Burying Ground Historic Site Memorial Committee selected a proposal by award-winning artist Karyn Olivier for a memorial titled “Her Luxuriant Soil.”

Olivier, who teaches sculpture at Temple University, was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1968. “My ancestors were slaves, but not here,” she told me. Olivier enjoys working with the earth: “It contains history and loss and pain. But it took its title from a speech by Richard Allen in 1817, before a meeting of three thousand free men of African descent, who had gathered to debate a proposal, mainly favored by slave owners. of the South, to resettle free black men and women in West Africa. “While our ancestors (no choice) were the first cultivators of America’s wilderness,” Allen said, “we, their descendants, feel entitled to share in the blessings of its lush soil. “

Olivier’s elegiac design incorporates elements uncovered during excavations at the site, including the inscription found on the only gravestone that has been exhumed: “Amelia Brown, 1819, aged 26. Whoever lives and believes in me, even if we are dead, we will live. A wrought-iron cemetery gate indicating “Bethel Burying Ground” will mark the entrance to the park – half of which will still be a playground – where the cobblestones engraved with epitaphs will have something of German quality Stolperstein, or stumbling blocks, marked with the names of those who were killed in the Holocaust. You won’t trip over Olivier’s installation; instead, inscribed in water activated concrete, the words will appear and disappear, along with rain, snow and a sprinkler system. The plan is to lead the way in March. But it won’t be very broken: the graves are only a few inches deep.


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