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ASLA Supports the African American Burial Grounds Preservation Legislation

African Burial Ground National Monument, New York, NY. Elizabeth Kennedy Landscape Architect, PLLC (landscape architect); Rodney Leon, AIA, NOMA (monument designer); AARRIS Architects (architect of record) / photography: John Bartelstone

ASLA, along with the American Institute of Architects, and 160 other organizations, has expressed support for the African American Burial Grounds Preservation Act. This legislation, authored by Representative Alma Adams (H.R. 6805) and Senator Sherrod Brown (S. 3667), would authorize the National Parks Service to fund and coordinate initiatives designed to identify, research, and preserve African American burial grounds that have been left unmarked, abandoned, or underserved.

These activities would create opportunities for landscape architects to advance environmental justice, heritage preservation, and equal access to culturally irreplaceable outdoor spaces. To facilitate these opportunities, the act would provide $3 million annually between 2023-2027. 

ASLA advocacy has been translating into progress in Congress. In recent months, both the House subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands and the Senate subcommittee on National Parks have held hearings on this legislation. These hearings emphasized both the pragmatic and moral imperatives for passing this legislation. 

From the Senate hearing, Michael Caldwell from the Department of Interior stressed the moral imperative. “African American burial grounds are part of the significant story of the role African Americans have played in the creation of the United States,” he said. “These sacred spaces are often located in unknown and unmaintained locations, due to the painful and enduring legacy of slavery and segregation at the time of their creation, leaving the stories and the sites hidden.”

From the House hearing, Angela Thorpe from the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission stressed the pragmatic imperatives. “As cities continue to evolve at a rapid rate in this country, a comprehensive, streamlined, and clear strategy for documenting and preserving African American burial grounds is critical,” she said. “These spaces will continue to be disturbed by construction projects, infrastructure improvements and land development if they remain undocumented. The program proposed by the African-American Burial Grounds Preservation Act presents a pathway; a pathway away from the challenges I have described, and towards expansive, meaningful, and reparative work.”

Landscape architects play a valuable role in the historic preservation of cultural landscapes, including cemeteries and other burial grounds. As landscape architect Everett Fly has stated, cemeteries are “not merely self contained and disconnected places to hold human remains. Along with churches and schools, burial grounds were sacred, and physical keystones, in the formation and sustained evolution of communities.” Burial grounds are integral to local settings and therefore fundamental to local character and quality.

Currently, no further action has been scheduled for either the House or Senate bills. ASLA will continue to express support for these measures and urge policy makers to pass these bills into law.

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