The centuries-old remains of American Indians and what are believed to be former African American slaves have shared a common resting place near Little Rock for a long, long time. The area is suddenly a curious and compelling archeological site.
Descendants of both groups recently came together at the site near Little Rock, Arkansas to observe unmarked African American graves among prehistoric Indian mounds, and discuss what they might do together to learn more and preserve the unmarked graves. Members of the Quapaw Tribe met with members of Preservation of African American Cemeteries (PAAC), along with Dr. John House of the Arkansas Archeological Survey and state Sen. Linda Chesterfield of Little Rock. The meeting sparked feelings of histories colliding—again, it seems—to provide a kind of closure.
“We feel like this is fate, in a way, because our tribal heritage and our ancestry especially here in Arkansas is very important to us,” said Chairman John Berrey of the Quapaw Tribe. “The fact that this particular discovery brought us together with another important group from Arkansas history made it a unique and special meeting.”
As a former teacher and a lifelong Arkansas history enthusiast, Chesterfield said she was touched by the meaning of the moment.
“The history of African Americans and Native Americans are very much aligned here in Arkansas,” she said. “The Quapaws are especially interesting because while Africans were being brought here in slavery, the Quapaws were being taken into slavery by Europeans. So it is wonderful to see these two groups working together now to discover and preserve their separate and mutual histories.”
Tamela Tenpenny-Lewis, president of the PAAC, described it as “coming full circle” in a common mission.
“History put us together to do something that both groups felt strongly about and had been working on independently,” Tenpenny-Lewis said. “We have both answered the call.”
Carla Hines-Coleman, vice president of PAAC, said: “This was meant to happen in its own time and way. It feels wonderful to be part of it, and we are all excited to see what we can do together to make the most of the opportunity.”
The burial sites were discovered on land purchased by the tribe in 2013, which was part of the historic Thiboult Plantation near the Little Rock Port Authority, and, before that, part of the tribe’s historic Arkansas reservation. The tribe and PAAC wished to keep the burial site’s exact location unknown to the public because of the possibility of looters who might disturb the graves in search of historic artifacts, which Dr. House said has been known to happen at other early Indian burial sites in Arkansas.
“This is a very special place on the landscape,” House said. “So much of Arkansas’ history is told only through the lens of what occurred after white Europeans came here. But there were centuries of prior history, very much of it involving the Quapaw Tribe and other Native American tribes.”
House estimated that the Native American graves at the site dated to between 1400 and 1600, while the African American graves in the same location probably date from before the Civil War to the early 1900s. He said it was not necessarily uncommon for a prehistoric grave site to serve as grave sites for later cultures. “What made it suitable for grave sites in earlier centuries made it suitable in more recent history as well, such as being on land that rises above the level of normal floods,” he said.
The Preservation of African American Cemeteries was founded in 2003 to create a network of persons and groups committed to locating, documenting and preserving previously unknown African American cemeteries.
The Quapaw Tribe is one of the main Indigenous Peoples of the state of Arkansas. They occupied areas spreading from Little Rock southward and eastward to the Mississippi River for centuries before white European explorers arrived in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Quapaws were relocated to northeast Oklahoma in the mid-1800s, and they have been active for numerous recent years in “coming home” to celebrate and preserve their Arkansas cultural heritage.
“We look so forward to working with our new friends, and with Dr. House, to learn more about this particular site,” Berrey said. “We aren’t sure yet exactly what we will do at the site, so the immediate desire is to simply not disturb it.”