• Thu. Dec 1st, 2022

Brown introduces legislation for national network of African American cemeteries

U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown was joined by local officials at Union Baptist Cemetery Tuesday, as he introduced his non-partisan bill to form a network of African American cemeteries. From left are Hamilton County Commissioner Denise Driehaus, Dion Brown from the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the Rev. Dr. Orlando B. Yates from Union Baptist Cemetery, and Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley. Photo by Dan Yount

By Matthew Keyes 

Herald Contributor  

U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) visited Union Baptist Cemetery along Cleves Warsaw Pike in West Price Hill November 12 to introduce bipartisan legislation to create a voluntary, nationwide network of African American burial grounds and to provide federal assistance to ensure the burial sites are preserved and maintained for future generations. 

“Earlier this year, I joined this group of leaders to visit this hallowed ground, and see all the work that was needed to restore this burial ground to the place of honor that it should be.  It’s so important that we restore this place where Powhatan Beaty and Dr. Jennie Davis Porter and so many other great Black Ohioans are laid to rest, so that it can be appreciated for the historic place it is,” said Brown. 

Brown introduced the legislation with Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) after he visited Union Baptist Cemetery earlier this year following news reports of vandalism at the cemetery and the cemetery’s call for much-needed repairs. Union Baptist Cemetery was founded in 1864 and includes the remains of former slaves, African American Union soldiers and Civil Rights activists. 

Brown’s bill, the African American Burial Grounds Network Act, would: 

  • Create a voluntary, national database within the National Park Service of historic African American burial grounds and; 
  •   Provide grant opportunities and technical assistance to local partners to research, identify, survey and preserve the burial grounds.
The 155-year-old Union Baptist Cemetery has experienced disrepair in recent years. Photo by Dan Yount

We are thankful for this legislation that will certainly inspire the documentation and access of information of African Americans that contributed so much to our nation,” said Brown. 

Companion legislation was introduced in the House by U.S. Reps. Alma Adams (D-NC-12), Donald McEachin (D-VA-4) and Ted Budd (R-NC-13). Creating and maintaining a network of African American burial grounds will help communities preserve local history, while better informing development decisions and community planning, Sen. Brown said. 

Brown said he had heard about the vandalism at the cemetery and a reference to Powhatan Beaty while listening to a radio talk show. “I became excited and wanted to learn more about the cemetery,’’ he said. “I learned about the efforts being made by the church and volunteers here to repair it, and that was the beginning of this legislation.’’ 

Rev. Yates, senior pastor of Union Baptist Church for 31 years, thanked Brown for the bill and the opportunity to provide support for it. 

As caretaker of the Union Baptist Cemetery, which was established in 1864, Yates said it was appropriate the announcement came at the cemetery just a day after the nation celebrated Veterans Day. 

Today, on these hallowed grounds upon which we stand, lies the remains of some 700 veterans of the Armed Forces, including 120 identified as Free Black Men who fought in the Civil War,” Yates said.  Recruited by Frederick Douglass, they were members of the North’s first All-Black Unit, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, who fought bravely and valiantly in spite of the threat by the Confederate Congress that every captured Black Soldier would be sold into slavery. 

In addition, many former slaves, antislavery advocates, and active members of the Underground Railroad are also interred here.’’ 

He noted that as a monument of unique distinction, both in American history and modern-day Black culture, in 2014, Ebony Magazine proclaimed and cited Union Baptist Cemetery as one of the “Ten Historical Sites Every Black Family Should Visit.” 

I do not have the time to highlight the many voluntary efforts being undertaken here at Union Baptist Cemetery and the many other African American Cemeteries throughout the country,’’ Yates said. “Even so, clearly there is a tremendous need for a unified nation-wide effort to help repair, preserve and restore these sacred burial grounds, which are indeed, an integral component of the heritage of the United States.’’ 

The provisions outlined in “The African American Burial Grounds Network” Legislation, he said, which has already been passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, will go a long way toward preserving this cemetery and so many other cemeteries for our present generation and for generations to come. 

“This issue, this cause, this Bill cries out for all of us to now speak out in support of its passage in the United States Senate and the signing into law by the President.