Recent preparations for a Topgolf sports complex unearthed graves at Mallard Creek Presbyterian Church that likely belong to enslaved African Americans. With their discovery, these burials bring about a number of pertinent issues that cannot remain neatly concealed in what we consider The Past. On the contrary, Charlotte’s present and future are at stake in terms of how we understand growth, race, heritage and politics in our beloved city.
Bones beg us to ask questions beyond issues of land ownership and development. They have the power to evidence history in ways that are more personal and more unsettling than our other ways of learning. Perhaps it is because their uncanniness reminds us of our own mortality. Maybe it is because they embody historical continuity when we’d rather think of The Past – especially one as violent as slavery and settler colonialism – as disconnected from our present. But this is precisely why we must attend to the people buried at Mallard Creek Presbyterian Church.
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The Mallard Creek discovery is far from an anomaly. In 1991, workers discovered human remains from the New York City African Burial Ground during construction on a federal office building. I wrote my master’s thesis about the political movement to preserve this gravesite, which is the oldest and largest known cemetery for enslaved and free black persons in North America. Because activists secured federal funding for research, reburial, a monument and a museum, the New York case is rightfully heralded as a success.
Despite these accomplishments, however, lawmakers failed to enact lasting federal legislation to protect historic African American burial places. This might explain why there is no clear protocol for Charlotte. Why is there no law akin to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which secures the rights of indigenous people upon the discovery of human remains, sacred objects, and funerary materials? The unsatisfactory answer involves a complicated matrix of ownership, genealogy, and indigeneity. Nevertheless, without a codified procedure, whenever an African American cemetery is uncovered – and there have been many including in Harlem, Richmond and now Charlotte – the processes and outcomes often are subject to development interests while lawmakers and community stakeholders clamor for redress.
Historian Dan Morrill of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission wrote the official report insisting on the site’s preservation, but he questioned whether the general public should be made aware of the discovery because of the “evocative and disturbing legacy of slavery.” For me, this is not debatable. We must honor people who were silenced during their lives and often erased from history. They demand it. Their resurfacing brings to the fore the racist, capitalist inheritances that operate just beneath the surface of our polite, sprawling and sometimes progressive Southern city. In this way, the burials of enslaved people in Mallard Creek ask urgent questions of the larger Charlotte community. And our response cannot be “passive.”
Following Jonathan Ferrell’s 2013 slaying at the hands of Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer Randall Kerrick, Charlotte writer Mary C. Curtis challenged residents to rethink the Queen City’s often-congratulatory self-image in terms of the racial politics. I echo her sentiments. Ferrell’s death, Keith Lamont Scott’s death and the subsequent protests last year, rapid gentrification, the never-ending saga of CMS’s desegregation, re-segregation, and integration, and now this discovery of graves force a reckoning.
This discovery furthers conversations already had around kitchen tables and on social media but must be addressed in public, direct platforms. The success of the New York African Burial Ground is attributed to the unrelenting activism of educators, artists, politicians, clergy, academics, children, and others. So what will Charlotte do? This question is as much about the past as it is about politics now. What is the nature of activism in Charlotte? How can this discovery honor the buried and educate the living? Asked this way, a humble plaque seems insufficient, does it not?
It appears the Topgolf complex won’t be built on the burial site. The company says it will consider alternative sites. Whether the sports complex is or is not constructed, I maintain that the discovery of the cemetery probes deeper issues because there are other burial grounds in Charlotte and beyond. These burial grounds remind us that we are always living with the past and thus we have a responsibility to it.
LaShaya Howie studies death and memorialization as a doctoral student in anthropology at The University of Chicago. She grew up in the Hidden Valley neighborhood of Charlotte and attended Myers Park High School.