U.S. African-American Burial Grounds Network Act
STATEMENT OF SHAWN BENGE, ACTING DEPUTY DIRECTOR, OPERATIONS, NATIONAL PARK SERVICE, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, BEFORE THE SENATE ENERGY AND NATURAL RESOURCES SUBCOMMITTEE ON NATIONAL PARKS, REGARDING S. 2827, A BILL TO AMEND TITLE 54, UNITED STATES CODE, TO ESTABLISH WITHIN THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE THE U.S. AFRICAN-AMERICAN BURIAL GROUNDS NETWORK, AND FOR OTHER PURPOSES.
March 4, 2020
Chairman Daines, Ranking Member King, and members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the opportunity to present the Department of the Interior’s views on S. 2827, a bill to amend title 54, United States Code, to establish within the National Park Service the U.S. African-American Burial Grounds Network, and for other purposes.
The Department recognizes the important contribution to America’s story that is represented by African-American burial grounds; however, we do not support S. 2827 at this time. Establishing an African-American Burial Ground Network could be one way to increase public awareness of these overlooked and forgotten sites, but it may not be the most appropriate or feasible way to do so. In addition, at a time when the Department is focusing resources on reducing the National Park Service’s deferred maintenance backlog and addressing other critical infrastructure needs, it would be difficult to prioritize a new program without having a better understanding of how it would relate to other National Park Service resources and needs. If the Committee acts on this legislation, we recommend amending the bill to provide for a study rather than establishment of a new program.
S. 2827 would establish the African-American Burial Grounds Network (Network) to include burial grounds that relate to the historic African-American experience. The Network would identify, document, preserve, research, evaluate, and interpret these burial grounds. Unmarked and unrecorded African-American burial grounds would be documented with the information publicly available if privacy and safety of the burial ground allow.
S. 2827 would also allow the Secretary to issue public grants and/or enter into cooperative agreements with governmental, educational, and non-profit organizations to help identify, preserve, interpret, and research sites in the Network.
The National Park Service would want a program like this one to be successful and sees the great challenge in managing something of this scale and magnitude without the appropriate administrative funding. The potential number of African-American burial grounds from the 17th Century to the 20th Century is enormous; locating and protecting these sites while also developing the Network in all the ways the bill describes would be incredibly challenging and costly.
In addition, many African-American burial grounds were deliberately unmarked to facilitate a final resting place, particularly during the period of U.S. enslavement. The National Park Service would want to ensure that any effort to protect these sites from disturbance is appropriate, and will not ultimately cause the damage and disturbance this bill hopes to avoid. Great care and consideration should be given to whether the sites should be marked at all, and to keep in mind that sites could become open to looting, damage, or vandalism if their locations were publicly known.
We also note that the National Park Service currently administers two existing networks (the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom and the African American Civil Rights Network) and are working to set-up two new networks that were recently established under P.L. 116-9 (Reconstruction Era National Historic Network and a program to commemorate and interpret the Transcontinental Railroad after first conducting a study of alternatives for the program).
For these reasons, if the Committee chooses to act on this bill, we recommend amending S. 2827 to provide for a study to determine the most appropriate way to recognize historic AfricanAmerican burial grounds in lieu of establishing a Network. We would welcome the opportunity to provide suggested language for such an amendment.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my statement. I would be pleased to answer any questions you or other members of the Subcommittee may have.