Editorial: Historic Black cemetery site deserves memorializing

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The possibility that remains from a historic Black cemetery could be unearthed during the proposed construction of the Henry Street bridge project offers powerful opportunities to honor the lives and recognize the struggles and contributions of Indianapolis’ earliest Black settlers.

For now, the debate and concern center on how to proceed if remains from a Black cemetery used through most of the 19th century actually are in the path of a $15 million to $20 million bridge project that is a key part of a deal that will bring Elanco Animal Health’s $150 million corporate headquarters to the site of the former GM stamping plant near White River State Park.

Some local historians and concerned residents this week called on the city to do a full-scale archaeological excavation of the development site before construction, rather than follow the city’s initial plan to begin construction and re-inter remains at another location if they are found.

As IBJ’s Taylor Wooten reported this week, city officials have pledged to take those calls into account as development plans are finalized. A residents advisory board also is being created for the project, Deputy Mayor Judith Thomas told concerned residents who gathered for a public meeting.

Many difficult and delicate decisions will have to be made if remains are found on the site.

Such debates are occurring across the country as historians and archeologists ruminate over the best way to preserve and advance Black history.

Some want historic Black burial sites—often unmarked and overgrown—to be left undisturbed when discovered.

Others call for a sensitive reinterment ceremony and memorial markers, and still others want to collect DNA samples to give Black descendants a better chance to track an often-undocumented personal history.

Regardless of whether human remains are found, the development’s location in the general vicinity of the Black cemetery provides a great opportunity for the community to honor the city’s earliest African American settlers and learn more about the injustices they suffered.

By the 1830s, tensions between anti-slavery and pro-slavery factions were rising in Indiana and resulted in the state constitution of 1851 that banned any more Blacks from settling in the state and provided money to send offending Blacks to Liberia.

Additional legislation required all Blacks already living in the state to register with the clerk of the circuit court.

It seems appropriate that this painful history be recognized and the Black cemetery be memorialized as part of the Henry Street bridge extension of the Cultural Trail that already connects many significant cultural districts throughout the city with bike and pedestrian pathways.

The significance of the cemetery site merits more than just a historical marker, especially considering all the mammoth monuments the city has honoring its veterans and war dead.

A serene memorial evoking contemplation and remembrance seems appropriate.

But Cultural Trail organizers, city leaders, historians, archeologists, the Black community and others need to work together to decide what is most fitting and build a better path toward healing and understanding.•


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One thought on “Editorial: Historic Black cemetery site deserves memorializing

  1. A full scale archeological excavation of the site should be done before construction of the bridge. If it’s determined this it’s true, remains should be interred elsewhere. Painful as the history may be it should be acknowledged that Blacks lived, thrived and died in this area. Marking this area once the bridge is completed is the right thing to do.