Introducing the Texas African American Cemetery Registry: An interview with lead graduate research assistant, Jennifer Blanks.

Learn more about the Texas African American Cemetery Registry, Jennifer explains what the Texas African American registry is, the goals and purposes of the registry and helpful information for everyone with knowledge on Black burial grounds.

Jennifer’s role in the Texas African American Cemetery Registry is to maintain the registry. She explains how this entails multiple responsibilities, such as  reviewing entries that are submitted into the registry and conducting  follow up phone calls and interviews based on information that is inputted into the cemeteries. She is also responsible for screening those reviews and seeing who we can collaborate with in any current project and potential future projects. Jennifer is also committed to  ensure the registry is accessible, making sure users understand how to locate it, how to use it and how to upload information correctly.

What is the Texas African American Cemetery Registry?

The Texas African American Cemetery registry is a voluntary database of Black burial grounds located in Texas. The aim of it is to create a resource for stewards, to help us that we will check this freedom colonies project, provide assistance that’ll help them determine the best way to protect and preserve their cemetery. I’m in Texas, this is one of the largest states in the United States and there’s an estimated, anywhere between 60 and 80 cemeteries in each county in the state of Texas, that’s a lot of cemeteries. And there isn’t an African American Cemetery registry that exists at the state level. But we do know that the African American burial ground network is a bill that’s underway, and it will be intended to create a registry of known African American burial grounds. We’re hoping that our Texas African American Cemetery registry can really be a blueprint in leading any national efforts to create cemetery registries, which honor and preserve African American burial grounds. 

Do you have any specific purposes that you would like to share with us about the cemetery registry? 

Yeah, so I kind of mentioned it before, you know, we are interested in sharing resources, but also creating changes that impacts and really providing assistance that the cemetery stewards and stakeholders and visitors are asking for. Because often times, we’ll get an email from a descendant of a freedom colony or stakeholder from a freedom colony, who will say, Hey, I just found this cemetery, or I know of a cemetery that’s in deplorable conditions and is inaccessible. There are issues around ownership of the burial ground. And so, we, one of our goals is to really help, you know, address those issues and really help stakeholders and descendants who reach out to us, you know, preserve their cemetery and make it a place in space that they’re proud to visit where we can honor, you know, ancestors in a dignified way. 

What other uses does this information have, for example, in terms of threat assessments? 

Sure. So, an overlap with the Texas Freedom Colonies Project, partly because we have so many intersections, is disaster research. Texas faces a host of issues, whether it’s environmental issues from flooding, drought, we experienced extreme winter conditions earlier this year, and all of those environmental factors can greatly impact the conditions of your cemetery. But then we also have concerns related to the built environment. So that can be anything from you know, its actual physical location being in a floodplain, its proximity to chemical plants, like we see in deep east, Texas, or south coastal Texas, like in Beaumont have all of these issues and threats that impacts cemeteries, and we can’t prevent or mitigate against those issues if we do not know where the cemetery is. And also, if we don’t spatialize those threats, and begin to see different patterns based on the region or you know, based on its location and proximity to a particular hazard. 

Who should submit to the registry?

  Anybody can submit to the registry. The Texas freedom Colonies Project does center ourselves in research, specifically catering to Texas freedom colonies. However, with the Texas African American Cemetery registry, we are interested in collecting information of any known black burial grounds and then through the review process, we can differentiate or identify rather as a freedom colony cultural resource. And so, cultural resources are evidence that a community once existed. Cemeteries are one of the best proxies to helping us identify freedom colonies. And while we’re making an effort to closing in that gap of identifying the geographic location of the least name places, we can we can advance that process through cemeteries and through inputting, you know, the black cemeteries into our registry. So, we don’t want you to think that you have to submit a freedom colony cemetery specifically. If you know of a black burial ground in the state of Texas, we want you to put that cemetery into the registry and then through our research, we can verify if it’s a freedom colony cemetery or not. But even if it is not a freedom colony cemetery it is still important to have because again, it helps us understand and spatialize what kinds of issues and threats cemeteries like cemeteries in the state of Texas are facing and dealing with.

What can you upload to the registry?

It can be a host of information. It can be pictures, it can be old maps, it can be handwritten maps, it can be official maps of the burial grounds. It can be obituaries. We want to know what is the accessibility to your burial ground. We want to know any issues or hazards that you’ve had. We want to know the condition of it. You know, it’s a whole lot of information that you can upload and share with us. I mean, do not think that any information is too small or too much. You know, the simplest clue is sometimes our biggest hits in helping us identify a freedom colony. So, with that being said, please take advantage of the Texas African American Cemetery registry and we’ll look forward to looking at your uploads.

Jennifer Blanks, Lead Researcher, Texas African American Cemetery