Not long ago, Fordham University student Sandra Arnold was visiting a great aunt in Tennessee. Her great aunt mentioned the graves of Arnold’s great-grandparents, one of them a former slave. When Arnold went to visit the graves, and found her great-grandparents’ graves as well as an area of unmarked slave burials, she later told NPR, “I guess I was expecting a pretty small family plot and it was much bigger than I expected. I tell people all the time that when I got there I remember thinking, wow, this was my family. This wasn’t Alex Haley. This wasn’t Roots, but this was actually my family that I’m looking at.”
She continued, “I was extremely grateful for my great aunt and other members of my community like her who have never forgotten. They’ve protected the location of a lot of these sites and the identity of the people lying in these graves, just through their own memory.”
Sandra Arnold and Fordham University, with help from Yale University, have set up the Burial Database Project of Enslaved African Americans at VanishingHistory.org. The database relies on submissions from the public to document the location of burials, marked and unmarked.
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Due to good state and church burial records, the efforts of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, and the efforts of a descendant of the Burton family, we know the burial locations of some of the slaves and former slaves who lived in Utah Territory. I’ve submitted the following graveyards to the database. Four are in Utah; one is the Mormon Pioneer Cemetery at Winter Quarters.
Spanish Fork City Cemetery, Utah County, Utah
Alex Bankhead, Marinda Redd Bankhead, possibly others
Union Cemetery, Salt Lake County, Utah
Green Flake, Martha Flake, Hark (Lay) Wales, George Bankhead, Nancy Bankhead, Samuel Bankhead, probably others
Parowan Cemetery, Iron County, Utah
John Burton (“Faithful John”)
Mormon Pioneer (Winter Quarters) Cemetery, Douglas County, Nebraska
Dennis Family Cemetery, Piute County, Utah
Nancy “Mammy” Dennis
If you are going to be at any of those graveyards on Memorial Day, you may wish to spare a moment to remember these men and women who were a vital part of early pioneering efforts.
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Submitting Information to the Burial Database Project of Enslaved African Americans
If you are aware of any additional slave burials in Utah or neighboring states, including the slaves who went to California in 1851 with the San Bernardino Mission, please submit them to the database and do let me know as well (amyancestorfiles at gmail dot com), since I am continuing to collect information about the slaves and former slaves who lived even briefly in Utah Territory. I will submit grave locations to the Burial Database Project of Enslaved African Americans as I find them.
If you live outside of the Intermountain West and are aware of slave burial locations, please also send that information to the database VanishingHistory.org.
The pictures in this post are from FindAGrave, or were sent to me by FindAGrave volunteers. In order: Anonymous, Cathie Owens, Vaunette Coache, Sharon Hanson Frey, and Max Turpin.