Black Burial Rights and Racialized Burial Borders: A Critique of American Identity at the Burial Ground

Friday, January 5, 2018: 9:10 AM
Columbia 9 (Washington Hilton)
Kami Fletcher, Delaware State University
Cemeteries are accepted separated and segregated spaces which makes them ripe for understanding race and nation. Black burial grounds (internment spaces owned and operated by, or relegated for persons racialized black), in particular, stand as representations that are not only cultural repositories of black lives but also a collective of lived experiences against a backdrop of the national narrative. Black burial grounds, then, are spaces that represent a particular time within the black experience in America and for this reason, when used as an analytical tool, can tell much about race and nation. Examining slave cemeteries and burial rights for persons of African descent, this paper explores nation building and race construction via the burial ground in colonial Maryland. Tracing laws, the system of slavery and the Protestant Episcopal Church (the religious arm of Maryland colonial law) this paper shows how race was used to construct burial borders that sought to privilege whites while denying blacks. One of the earliest colonial laws concerning burial mandated that all deceased persons except “Negroes and Malattoes” be registered by the Office of the Vestryman of that county. This law made no exemption of free Africans, so although free, they were denied their documentation as well. This law passed within the province of Maryland on March 16, 1701 showing how race was used to construct cemetery borders while at the same time death was used to construct citizenship rights all the while Maryland is becoming state.