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Historians battle to save U.S. slave burial sites

BEDMINSTER, New Jersey (Reuters) - The slaves buried here are identified only as Richard and Zaff. A third person, recorded as a free black man, is not named at all.

The three men bought their own grave sites in this central New Jersey town for three dollars back in 1801. It was less than 20 years after the end of the Revolutionary War. The U.S. Civil War that would determine the fate of their fellow slaves--and chart much of the course of U.S. history--was still six decades away.

Although little is known about the men, researchers are now battling to preserve the tiny plot, one of thousands of slave burial sites found across the country. Fordham University in New York last month launched a project to compile an online registry of such sites, part of an effort to raise national awareness of slavery.

Historians are intrigued by the New Jersey burials for two reasons: for underscoring that slavery reached beyond the southern states that fought against the North, and also because the rarity of slaves being allowed to buy land may soften the harsh reputation of New Jersey slave owners.

Historian Thomas Buckingham, vice president of the Somerset County Historical Society in nearby Bridgewater, hopes the site will eventually be included in the Fordham registry, called the Burial Database Project of Enslaved African Americans.

Sandra Arnold, a 50-year-old student at Fordham’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies, said she was driven to create the database after visiting the Tennessee cemetery where her great-grandfather is buried. His dignity and that of other slaves should be preserved, she said.

Buckingham recently traced land deeds far into the past for a tenth of an acre on the site where the Bedminster Town Hall used to be located. He discovered that the land was purchased by the slaves and the free man, an unusual finding since slaves were almost always buried on their masters’ property in unmarked graves.

Buckingham asked Bedminister Township officials to designate the plot as open space and place a historic marker there.

“(I want to) permanently protect it from development and ensure that the original intent of the three black men is respected,” Buckingham said.

Bedminster clerk Judith Sullivan said the township can’t guarantee what its decision will be, although it “wants to do the right thing.” At this point she is unaware of any developer interest, but said that residential property owners on either side of the gravesite might want to buy it and build on it, Sullivan said.

“South of the Mason-Dixon line, there were almost zero cases of slaves buying their own gravesites,” said Dr. Lynn Rainville, a historian at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, who’s worked on 200 historic African-American cemeteries in her 13 years at the school. There were also very few such cases in the North, Rainville said.

Buckingham called the property “a very significant historical site for the state, county and township.” He repeated the refrain of amateur historians throughout the country who’ve painstakingly identified thousands of slave burial locations over the years: please leave this site alone.

Those fervent pleas have not always been met. One of numerous burial sites in the country completely or partially destroyed was in Catonsville, Maryland, a state where some 6,000 to 9,000 slave burial sites have been found. In the Catonsville case, a land owner in 2010 cleared a property without a permit and destroyed, among others, the headstone of a former slave who’d been injured in the Civil War. County officials finally halted the destruction, but the damage was already done.

Some sites, however, have been preserved. In 1991, authorities stopped construction of a federal office building in lower Manhattan after discovering the remains of 419 bodies of both free and enslaved blacks. The site is now a national historic landmark.

Whatever the fate of the New Jersey site, Rainville said, its existence demonstrates once again that “no one should think that slavery was only a Southern problem. That’s the power of these cemeteries: they’re a museum of enslaved bodies.”

Buckingham said that New Jersey has an “ugly history with slavery,” noting that, due to labor shortages, the state imported a large number of slaves early in the 18th century. By 1775, there were about 11,000 slaves--some 12 percent of the state’s population--in New Jersey. Slaves suffered lynching and public burnings, which other slaves were forced to watch, during this period.

Buckingham said, the state’s reputation should be tempered somewhat by his finding that the Bedminster slaves bought their own gravesite. That was “a testament to the progressive leaning of the township,” he said in his letter asking the township to preserve the gravesite.” The slaves were probably “treated very well” by their masters, “almost like members of the family,” he said.

Even as newly traced sites like the one in Bedminster become known and preservationists try to protect them, 21st-century development will uncover others. “They’ll never get every site recorded,” said Rainville, who’s an advisor to the Fordham project. “But that’s not the goal. The goal is to raise awareness of slavery in this country, and that’s fine.” (Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Arlene Getz and Andrew Hay)