CREEPY CORNER: Why Historic African-American Cemeteries Matter

Is dignity in death and staking a claim that "I EXISTED" a privilege only reserved for the right side of the fence?
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Louise Hung
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Is dignity in death and staking a claim that "I EXISTED" a privilege only reserved for the right side of the fence?

I've never been to a historic African-American cemetery. 

In my travels around the US to cemeteries large and small, I have never visited one that was at one time exclusively reserved for the burial of black people on American soil. This was not a conscious effort, it wasn't on purpose. 

Worse, it was unconscious. I accepted it.

Until recently, I didn't give it much thought. Of course America's historic burial grounds belong primarily to white people. 

As a person of color who grew up in the US, it was a no-brainer. Mainstream American history does not belong to people of color, and when a non-white person does make a mark on history it is the exception, not the norm. White is normal. 

At least that's the filter through which I understood American history and culture for most of my youth. 

But yet, even as I grew up and came to expect, to demand equality from my country, it didn't occur to me to demand equality for how Black Americans spend eternity. Sometimes people say we are all "equal in death." Unfortunately that isn't true. 

I will be the first to admit, that as a person who makes part of her living examining how we confront death and that which surrounds it, I didn't ask an important question: where are the black cemeteries?

Apparently most are left to ruin, lost, or have become overgrown dumping grounds. 

Cemeteries like Greenwood Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri not only have to fight a battle against nature reclaiming the land, but also a battle for funding and historical relevance. While neighboring historically white cemeteries continue to be well-maintained, cemeteries like Greenwood are in danger of being bulldozed to make way for land development (another black cemetery in the area was "dug up to make room for an airport expansion") or are left in the hands of volunteers and the deceased's aging family members. 

Says Michael Trinkley, of the Chicora Foundation, "This is the situation we observe: There’s a black cemetery on the other side of the hill, and it began around the same time as the white one, and the white one is in fine shape—the black one is not... The underlying problem is that black cemeteries have been left without the resources necessary to operate."

And though Greenwood now gained community support and is in the National Register of Historic Places, it still relies on volunteers. Its progress is slow going. 

This is the place where black Civil War veterans were laid to rest. This is where the wife of Dred Scott, Harriet Robinson Scott, is buried. This cemetery has survived the greatest periods of racial upheaval in America. It is a historic cemetery that rivals any American cemetery in size and significance. Yet it is choking under decades of neglect. 

In Richmond, Virginia Evergreen and East End cemeteries (founded in 1891 and 1897 respectively) were established "when white people barred black people from being interred in the same burial grounds."

Covering 76 acres, the cemeteries have over 50,000 buried individuals whose graves are being slowly lost to nature and dumped garbage. Yes, garbage. 

Headstones are crumbling, broken, barely legible. Some of the graves have been swallowed up by the ground. As the graves and headstones disappear, so does black history. 

Writer Brian Palmer explains, "[black people] were treated as second-class citizens in the Jim Crow South and, accordingly, their lives were not well documented by authoritative documents of the day. That makes their headstones vital texts in an outdoor archive."

Though the cemeteries have seen volunteer efforts to clear out the overgrowth and clean up the garbage, only a fraction of the cemeteries' grounds have been touched. And even though the state of Virginia pledged $400,000 "to the restoration efforts, through the Virginia Outdoors Foundation," this is only the beginning of what the long ignored cemeteries will need.  

The money is an important step, but will it be enough? 

Quite simply, few organizations are prepared to restore a wild, sprawling historic black cemetery. Sadly, it's never been done. According to Dr. David Brown, archaeologist and co-director of the Fairfield Foundation, "There are no direct sources of government funding that directly address research or preservation of African American cemeteries. There is a desire to help, but few mechanisms to facilitate preservation."

Aside from the actual grounds of cemeteries, the records of who the people in the cemeteries were, what families are interred there, are at risk as well. Many records have already been lost and are attempting to be recovered. 

At the Hamilton City Cemetery in Hamilton, Georgia two vastly different cemeteries share the same land. 

Divided by a chain link fence (as of 2013 — to the best of my knowledge it's still there), there is the "white side" of the cemetery and the "black side" of the cemetery. The "white side" is groomed, orderly. The "black side" is disordered, abandoned, overgrown. 

While one half of the history of Hamilton City Cemetery's is clear and maintained, the other side is a mystery — nobody knows who owns it. Thus the records of those interred are all but lost. 

I don't need to tell you which side is which. 

While the "white side" is owned and operated by the Hamilton Cemetery Association, the "black side" was literally forgotten until an African-American woman named Annie B. Copeland wanted to be buried there around 2013.

Though efforts have been made to clean up parts of the "black side" of the cemetery, people are not sure how to proceed. Nobody really knows who or what is in the cemetery. Established in 1828, who knows how many people have been lost to the ages? 

Supposedly the county owns the "black side" of Hamilton City Cemetery, but they claim it's not theirs. It seems that any time someone is asked to be held accountable for the cemetery they point at the next person down the line. Nobody wants to be responsible for the mess that is Hamilton City Cemetery's black "residents." 

These are just three cemeteries out of dozens, maybe hundreds in America, where Black Americans have been forgotten — their history left to decay. It takes time, it takes money, it takes manpower, it takes many things that seem to be in short supply when it comes to preserving a black cemetery.

I understand all of the above, and I understand that it isn't easy to more or less resurrect a cemetery. However, more than anything, it takes a desire, a need to correct the mistakes of the past. Is that in short supply too? 

When we talk about race in America we take about erasure. We talk about how people of color seem to strangely disappear from American history, the American dialogue, the American consciousness. It has been called a violent act. 

In talking about erasure we talk about making people irrelevant, in treating them with indifference, because it is easier, it is less uncomfortable. "Irrelevant," "indifferent" — isn't that exactly the way to describe the treatment of black cemeteries? 

America's black cemeteries may be the last way for us to hold onto a history and culture that for generations America tried to erase. Preserving them is not righting the wrongs of the past, but it is not letting the past slip into oblivion. 

Is dignity in death and staking a claim that "I EXISTED" a privilege only reserved for the right side of the fence?