A Photographer in Search of Forgotten Burial Sites


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By Caroline Gutman, The New York Times

An African American burial ground project in South Carolina is just one subject in Caroline Gutman’s search for a history hiding in plain sight.

Carolin Gutman’s search for Black history lead her to Black burial grounds and cemeteries around the country (Caroline Gutman)

I first heard about the unmarked African American burial sites in Charleston, S.C., in November 2021, while visiting the city to research an entirely different topic: I was there to photograph the legacy of indigo in the United States and its role in slavery.

A historian there told me the location of a potter’s field in the middle of Charleston that held the remains of over 26,000 people, most of whom were Black. I was familiar with the site; seeking Wi-Fi during my research, I had visited a community center that now sits on the land. There were also two baseball diamonds, two parking lots, a playground and a college football stadium named after a Confederate officer.

But there was no memorial acknowledging the remains that existed underground.

On my way out of Charleston, I stopped at the site to photograph those ball fields and parking lots. I couldn’t stop thinking about the history they obscured. On my drive home to Philadelphia, I wondered what other unmarked African American burial grounds existed in the United States. I didn’t know it then, but I had started a photography project that continues today.

Across the country, African American burial grounds have been paved over by parking lots, performance halls and highways. Some have a marker; other sites have been erased or forgotten.

My reporting first brought me to a strip mall in northeast Baltimore, where a Food Depot, Dollar General and Shoppers World sat on top of the remains of over 10,000 graves. The former site, Laurel Cemetery, was a prominent African American burial ground for over a century before it was closed in 1958. In Philadelphia, an African American burial site also known as the Bethel Burying Ground was in my old neighborhood. I learned of unmarked graves in Ellicott City, Md., and Washington, D.C. The more I asked, the more sites people told me about.

Finish Gutman’s article.

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