On Tuesday, the Martha’s Vineyard branch of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History held a virtual fundraising event with special guest Peggy King Jorde, an expert on memorializing African burial grounds. The event was facilitated by Carol Copeland Thomas, a member of the association.
King Jorde led a lecture about her efforts to memorialize the marginalized history of African slaves in the U.S. Using her architectural skills, she worked to raise awareness and “how we occupy, as people of color, the historical landscape we live in.” The endeavor that resulted in the National Park Service’s African Burial Ground National Monument & Interpretive Center in New York City was the pivot in King Jorde’s career in this direction. In 1991, King Jorde got the opportunity to memorialize the gravesite of more than 15,000 enslaved and freed Africans while working under former New York City Mayor David Dinkins.
“Because of this project, it has inspired me to get involved in projects all over the country,” said King Jorde.
King Jorde said there were difficulties with the project at first. During the early excavations of the New York City site, a government gag order was put in place to “render invisible the human remains and the lives of African people who had remarkably survived the Middle Passage,” which led to outrage. Her fight against federal authority allowed King Jorde to change the landscape so people do not forget what happened to the Africans who arrived by ship.
King Jorde has experienced her own share of American oppression against African Americans. She was born in a segregated hospital in Albany, N.Y. “Like some of you, I am a descendent of enslaved people, born into an American apartheid. The living legacy of a global crime,” said King Jorde. “However, owing a debt of gratitude to my ancestors for the gift of transcending the historical atrocities that would have had me erased and forgotten.”
King Jorde attended a desegregated Georgia public school. Her white classmates called her many names, but rarely her birth name. The white student who “managed to demonstrate the smallest bit of civility in the playground” referred to her as “little nig.”
King Jorde’s household helped to shape her path in fighting the erasure of African American history. Her father was a civil rights lawyer who defended Martin Luther King Jr., and her mother was an educator and an “activist in her own right.” King Jorde’s father was beaten bloody by a local sheriff, a “Georgia cracker and a good ol’ boy,” and the incident was picked up by The New York Times.
“It’s no wonder I experienced a profound, personal outrage when I learned of the government gag order,” said King Jorde. “This was about my community, my history, and it mattered who would tell their story.”
This led to the campaign to create the burial memorialization. King Jorde worked with stakeholders to galvanize the supporters of the campaign. In the end, Congres stepped in to reappropriate funding and a part of the building plans for memorialization of the dead African Americans. Artists were commissioned to install artworks, such as the sculpture “Triumph of the Human Spirit” by Lorenzo Pace, in the historic area in an effort to protect it.
“Physical reminders are what we use to keep ourselves close to important places, people, and events,” said King Jorde. The project helped lead to more equitable and informed preservation. These efforts to memorialize the marginalized and disenfranchised support making a full history and “overcoming the privileging of the powerful over the public good.”
King Jorde also touched on her own family’s history on Martha’s Vineyard, which started with her great-grandfather William Henry Kiner, who came to the Island from Virginia.
After the lecture came a trailer of an in-the-works British documentary called “A Story of Bones.” The film documents King Jorde’s efforts in supporting the call for the preservation of a slave burial site and reburial of 325 remains stored in a prison facility in the island of Saint Helena, a British Overseas Territory. Saint Helena is also a Middle Passage site for over 8,000 burials whose remains were retrieved from slave ships. King Jorde has reached out to various stakeholders and descendants of slaves, from politicians to influencers, in the effort to preserve the historical site. “British history is Black history,” said King Jorde. “Future generations of descended slaves require us to do this work.”
“This is unbelievable. You can feel the spirit of the human remains, our ancestors,” commented Cassandra Matthews, president of the association, after watching the trailer.
The event concluded with a Q and A session.
For more information about the efforts that are underway or about the Saint Helena site, visit King Jorde’s website, kingjordeculturals.com, or the Facebook group St. Helena, UK-A Global Call to Action-Save this sacred ground.”