In recent years, interest in locating burial grounds of enslaved people has grown. There is even a project called The National Burial Database of Enslaved Americans (NBDEA), which Slaververyremembrance.org describes as “the first and only national database to document individual burials and burial grounds of enslaved Americans.” However, for actor, writer, filmmaker and director of the Study of the Legacy of Slavery in Maryland, Chris Haley, delving into Black history has nearly been a lifelong calling.
His grandmother, Zeona Haley, sparked his interest in the topic when she gave him a book called “A Pictorial History of the Negro in America.” It piqued his curiosity, when he realized many were included beyond the most commonly known names.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, there’s all these black people who were a part of history. That’s amazing!’ And that started me being interested in Black history of other African Americans. Subsequent to that I became interested in genealogy, because my uncle is Alex Haley,” Chris said, recalling how his uncle’s research sparked interest about his mother’s side. Then, nearly early 30 years ago, Chris became interested in visiting places where his mother’s ancestors were buried in Georgia.
He remarked that looking at the places where they were laid to rest brought them back to life, in a way. Collective personal interests later led to Chris’s co-production of a new film called “Unmarked,” which draws attention to unmarked cemeteries or unmarked final resting places, of free and formerly enslaved African Americans. In a similar way to his maternal lineage, Chris says that locating the graves, and creating the film, helps bring people who were overlooked, back to life. Preserving the areas helps to reinforce valuing the fact that they lived, mattered and are no longer forgotten.
“The idea behind it is to try to make known the situation where so many persons of African descent are buried across the United States of America, and in underground places, where we have no idea where they are,” Chris said.
He further explains the reason why some graves are unmarked in the first place. He revealed that sometimes cemeteries have had no one to take care of the properties due to a lack of financial resources. Another reason was due to when people were buried during slavery, there wasn’t enough money or the wherewithal from people on the farms or plantations to acquire a stone, a tablet, or a memorial of any type, to mark their final resting place for perpetuity.
Situations like these led to only having a stone, which happened to be in the area as a marker. A tree, a stump or a mound of earth was also used as a physical landmark for people who were enslaved on a plantation. There was awareness that people were buried in a field, but the exact location was not necessarily known.
Chris, who is also the executive director the Utopia Film Festival in Greenbelt, Maryland, teamed up with Brad J. Bennett to bring the film project to fruition. Based in Central Virginia, Bennett is the co-director and producer of “Unmarked.” Bennett says that he has always had a reverence for American History and those who came before him. Hearing something on the radio captured his interest.
“I first heard a piece on local public radio about a segregated cemetery in Richmond [Virginia] where descendants just a decade earlier couldn’t drive through a labyrinth of overgrown brush just to visit their family members laid to rest. We quickly got in touch with some of the descendants and volunteers leading [to] the preservation efforts at that particular cemetery,” Bennet said.
“Knowing there were folks in the African American (free or enslaved) community who contributed largely to our society and whose gravesites were neglected and almost lost entirely was very concerning. I immediately knew this was a significant yet hidden issue that needed to be exposed.”
For directors Haley and Bennett, making “Unmarked” took three and half years to complete, primarily due to lack of funding. Bennett explained that the documentary film was a collective effort— many talented individuals freely gave their time and gifts.
On April 27, 2021, viewers can begin renting or purchasing the 40-minute film on iTunes, Amazon and AppleTV.
“Unmarked” has screened virtually at several film festivals, including the Pan African Film Festival. It is being shown at the Annapolis Festival, until April 18, 2021.
To learn more about the film, visit https://www.unmarkedfilm.com/.