SAN ANTONIO – Nationally recognized for his work that often bears historical and cultural significance, Everett Fly, is also known for helping descendants find and restore forgotten African-American cemeteries.
Word about Fly’s expertise reached the offices of U.S. Reps. Alma Adams, of North Carolina, and A. Donald McEachin, of Virginia. The representatives introduced the African-American Burial Grounds Network Act, which would create a national database of African American cemeteries.
Fly, a landscape architect, was asked to serve as an adviser on the legislation, which is pending in Congress.
“I’ve been sending them updates on the projects that I’ve been working on, the progress that we’ve been making in preserving and protecting them,” Fly said. “Kind of (like) lessons learned.”
He said there’s no doubt “African American cemeteries happen to be some of the most overlooked.”
Fly said the cemeteries exist in every state, especially in the South, where slaves were buried on plantations that were later sold and split up. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if there were tens of thousands of them across the country.
“If we allow them to be erased or desecrated, we lose that part of our history,” Fly said.
He said, if the bill is enacted, the National Park Service will administer the database.
“But we have to find money to manage it,” he said. “Then, we’d have to find money in each state in order to keep up with the state database and keep up with the records.”
Fly said a national database would help researchers, families and genealogists who are trying to track down lost relatives or explore family ties.
Roseann Bacha Garza, an anthropologist at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, said finding out about one’s family history is more popular than ever.
“We have seen such a push for people in general, at least in this country -- I believe worldwide -- to want to get back to their roots and to learn about who they are, where they come from, who they’re related to, what is their racial makeup,” Bacha Garza said.
Some who already know their roots also would welcome being included in a national database of African American cemeteries.
The great-grandson of a white man and a black slave who settled in the Rio Grande Valley before the Civil War, Dr. Ramiro Ramirez, said he’d want his family’s two adjacent cemeteries listed in the database to make others aware of their history.
“They provided refuge to a lot of runaway slaves, provided refuge to people that needed help,” Ramirez said.
The history of the underground railroad to Mexico has been the subject of a recent documentary “Just a Ferry Ride to Freedom.”
Ramirez, a rancher and semi-retired psychologist, said he and other descendants of Nathaniel and Matilda Jackson are looking into having the cemeteries placed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The Jackson descendants also have been some of the most vocal opponents to the border wall that was being between the cities of Alamo and Pharr. Construction within close sight of the cemeteries is now at a standstill as the Biden administration considers its options.
“I think it’s the greatest thing that could have happened,” Ramirez said.
He said he believes his ancestors would be proud of their descendants for trying to protect their legacy.
“If I was the one that was buried there and they were the ones that were alive, they would be doing the same thing,” Ramirez said. “They would be fighting.”
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