When many Americans want to visit a family member's gravesite, a simple inquiry of another relative or web search on a site like Find A Grave will lead them right to it. In the case of Sandra Arnold and other relatives of African-American slaves, this task can be a little trickier.
The 50-year-old Fordham University history student created a website called The Burial Database Project of Enslaved African Americans, where she aims to compile a comprehensive list of slaves' burial sites.
While two of Arnold's great-grandparents, both born slaves, have clearly marked graves in Tennessee, the gravesites next to them were unmarked. This troubling fact, along with the knowledge that many graves have been bulldozed to build shopping centers or overgrown by weeds, led Arnold to start her project.
"The fact that they lie in these unmarked abandoned sites — it's almost like they are kind of vanishing from the American consciousness," she said.
Her research began on the plot where she discovered her grandparents' graves, then expanded to the state of Tennessee. Eventually, she hopes to find every marked or unmarked slave burial site in the United States.
More of these graves are being discovered every year, causing headaches for several institutions. An Alabama Walmart had to cease construction after it was discovered that the plot of land on which they were building contained 80 graves. And in 2004, The University of Alabama acknowledged and apologized for two faculty-owned slaves buried next to the school's biology building.
Upon discovering her grandparents' graves in the middle of a field, Arnold was offended by the fact that they were essentially thrown aside instead of given a proper burial in a hallowed space.
"It bothered me that enslaved African-Americans don't have that sort of dignity," she said.
Eric G. Grundset, the director of the Library of the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution, added, "A huge number of old cemeteries, even from the 19th century, are simply lost in the landscape. Memory is usually the primary source for locating such spots, so this project will rely very heavily on that for results."
Arnold's website asks volunteers to contribute information about burial sites they know about so they can be verified. She says the completion of the database will rely entirely on these submissions.
Lisa Martin Sanders, who is working on preserving a North Carolina slave burial ground, was excited when she head about Arnold's project. Her ancestors, along with 1,500 other slaves, were buried in a rundown cemetery that she renamed the Black Heritage Community Cemetery.
"I thought it was awfully sad that people can get thrown away," Sanders said. "If we have somewhere we can go and actually look and research this information, we can better understand who we are. If we lose that, where are we?"
Arnold and her team are especially trying to reach out to rural communities with any means possible, since most of the burial grounds are located in these areas. They have also contacted the presidential estates of George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, all of which contained valuable information on slave gravesites on their grounds.
While Arnold hopes to apply this research to a doctoral degree in the future, the personal element will always be the primary force behind her work.
"The potential of this project is immeasurable," she said. "Not only can it properly memorialize the enslaved, it can also facilitate a mutual and respectful dialogue about a subject that is still very sensitive to many."