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Sen. Brown rallies for database of African American cemeteries, starting with Union Baptist Cemetery

Posted at 5:47 PM, Nov 12, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-12 18:56:02-05

CINCINNATI — Union Baptist Cemetery's 15 acres serves as the final resting place for black Civil War veterans, former slaves and civil rights activists.

It's history goes deep: There were few places for black Cincinnatians to bury their dead in 1864, when Union Baptist Cemetery interred its first bodies. Activists have been struggling to preserve the historic cemetery, and the important grave sites it holds.

After reports of vandalism in the cemetery in August, Hamilton County officials stepped in to help ensure it received the repairs and restoration it both needed and deserved.

Union Baptist Church reverend Orlando Yates said respectful upkeep for the cemetery is expensive, and despite the hard work he and others have put into the cemetery over the years, it still needs a lot of help.

"As you look around the cemetery, you can see that there are so many things that are needed," said Yates.

Members of the Union Baptist Church currently pay for basic upkeep like grass-trimming, but the rest has been out of their financial reach. A failed GoFundMe was set up in 2017, with the hopes of collecting $150,000 to repair knocked over monuments, level uneven ground and cut back the worst of the overgrown greenery. After two full years, the fund-raising site had raised less than $200.

Now, U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown is stepping in to help introduce legislation that could take that protection and preservation steps further than original activists ever imagined.

"The more that I learned about it, the more excited I got to be a part of this," said Brown.

The Ohio Democrat is proposing a bill that would create a new federal database of African American burial sites that would, in the long term, help find, identify and preserve cemeteries like Union Baptist. A companion bill has already passed the U.S. House, and has bipartisan support in the Senate.

Cincinnati mayor John Cranley is also proposing the city add $5,000 to the restoration; the federal support could add much more.

"We find out how many of these cemeteries there are across the country -- we don't even know that -- and then assess what we need," said Brown.

Brown credits Union Baptist chairwoman Angelita Jones with raising the rally cry that caught his, and other advocates, attention. Jones took up the cause, and for her, it's always been personal: She counts relatives among the dead buried in the cemetery and has been working to improve the conditions.

"This whole idea of networks for people of color and cemeteries that have had no real assistance or real outside help, really began in Cincinnati with Ms. Jones," said Brown.

Now, in tandem with Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander, Brown is introducing the African American Burial Grounds Network Act, so cemeteries like Union Baptist can be found and preserved for the future.