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Grave parity

3/11/2017, 10:03 a.m.

We were heartened by Free Press staff writer Jeremy M. Lazarus’ front page report published in the Feb. 23-25 edition on the Virginia General Assembly approving funds to maintain gravesites in East End and Evergreen cemeteries.

The historic African-American cemeteries in Richmond are the final resting place of people who were instrumental in the causes of racial equality, education, economic progress, civil rights, voting rights and overall advancement of not just people of color, but all citizens of Richmond and across the nation.

Many of them were pioneers in their fields and role models we can turn to today for blueprints for success. Others, whose names are not known, have their own history as leaders in their families and neighborhoods who helped bolster the forward movement of our race.

We highly commend Delegate Delores McQuinn for spearheading the successful legislative effort to secure state funds to help preserve our history for generations to come.

We also are shocked to learn that, for 100 years, our tax dollars have been going toward the upkeep of the graves of Confederates. African-Americans have been helping to pay to spruce up the cemetery plots of people who fought to keep us in chains. There is something very macabre and twisted about that. And it speaks volumes about what has remained important to those in positions of power in this commonwealth.

If we believe in the humanity of all, then we must show that through how and where we place our funds.

The state budget is a window into the hearts of our legislators that allows us to see what they hold dear and important. For generations, we have paid to maintain monuments to traitors, to those who would want us enslaved, perhaps even to this day.

It is hard to reconcile such cruel and grim notions.

But if we believe in the full humanity of all, we should open the door further so that the full scope of history is preserved. This includes the graves of our ancestors as well.

Dr. Michael Blakey, director of the Institute for Historical Biology at the College of William & Mary, is an anthropologist perhaps best known for his work with the African Burial Ground in New York City, now a national historic site run by the National Park Service.

Here in Virginia, he co-directed the “Remembering: Slavery, Resistance and Freedom Project” leading up to the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. As part of the project, community conversations were held across the state to identify sites that are important to the history of slavery, resistance efforts and freedom.

More than 300 African-American cemeteries, including family plots, church graveyards and other places, were identified and are in a database at William & Mary.

According to Dr. Blakey, the payment of state dollars for the upkeep of Confederate cemeteries shows a “disregard for the full humanity of African-Americans that goes back into slavery.”

He noted that a law in the late 17th century in Virginia denied African-Americans the right to burial, in part because of fears that rebellion could be hatched or plotted during funeral gatherings.