LISTEN HERE (Support this project at patreon.com/AfricanElements)
This story is our second in a series on Black family history to celebrate Black history this February.
Once, when Raphael Morris was 10 years old, he and his father drove through Hillsdale, Missouri, just a few miles from their hometown, Pagedale, and stopped in front of Greenwood Cemetery. “You have family in there,” his father told him. As a child, Morris said, he didn’t think much of the news and didn’t think twice about the cemetery.
Until more than 50 years later.
Morris found himself back at the burial grounds in 2016 after seeing a news program about what poor condition the land was in. So, he traveled just 15 minutes from his home in Olivette to the cemetery to see for himself.
“It was absolutely nothing but a forest. You couldn’t see a single headstone on the property,” said Morris, now 69. By then, he said, Greenwood was mostly riddled with discarded mattresses, television sets, furniture and other garbage dumped there over the years.
“Sometimes I think certain people will clean out their whole house and dump it in the cemetery,” he said.
With that, Morris retired from his job at a chemical company and devoted himself to restoring the cemetery. He, a historian, Etta Daniels, and a group of concerned citizens founded the Greenwood Cemetery Preservation Association. Morris said at least a dozen of his family members are buried there. But through the growth, debris and garbage, he has only been able to find headstones for an uncle and a great-grandmother.
Greenwood Cemetery was founded in 1874 as the first Black commercial burial ground for the St. Louis area’s growing Black population after the Civil War. At least 50,000 people were buried in Greenwood, including Harriett Scott who, along with her husband, Dred Scott, sued for their freedom in the historic Supreme Court case, Dred Scott v. Sandford; Charlton Hunt Tandy, a Civil War veteran and lawyer who helped free enslaved families; and Lucy Delaney, who wrote the famed 1890s slave narrative, “From the Darkness Cometh the Light.”
Greenwood was maintained by members of the founding family well into the late 1970s before it was sold and underwent “severe neglect, abuse and vandalism,” according to the association. A group of locals formed the Friends of Greenwood in 1999 to preserve the cemetery. But, in the years that followed, many had grown too old to care for the land and it fell into disrepair once more.
Overgrown fields and woods — and vandals — have since damaged grave markers. In some areas, severe erosion has exposed human bones.
Since the Greenwood Cemetery Preservation Association was formed, the group has cleared out about half the cemetery and located several documents to identify those buried. So far, they’ve found some form of record for at least 35,000 people.
“As far as record-keeping, when we first started in 1999, we had nothing. Today, you could give me a name and I can go to the digital records and say, ‘Yes, this person is there,’” Daniels said. “For some of these souls, the only record of their existence may be Greenwood Cemetery records.”
The Greenwood association is one of many groups across the country working to restore, preserve and honor centuries-old historically Black burial sites. For the descendants, students and simply concerned citizens advocating for cemeteries in cities across the U.S., the neglect of Black burial grounds is an extension of the racism Black people experience while living. In states like Georgia, Missouri and North Carolina, volunteers are working to clean cemeteries and restore headstones; advocates in Virginia and Louisiana are battling developers to keep Black cemeteries intact; and groups in Texas and Florida are seeking justice for Black burial grounds that were paved over to build properties and highways. The fight for Black cemeteries is being fought on several fronts in a growing movement urging the nation to value and honor Black life and death.
The movement to preserve Black cemeteries is inherently tied to the predatory land practices of the Jim Crow era, said Kami Fletcher, an associate professor of history at Albright College and president of the Collective for Radical Death Studies. Black towns and cemeteries were disturbed or destroyed for industrial and infrastructure developments.
“When you look at land ownership in this country, it is absolutely at the intersection of patriarchy, whiteness, racism and Jim Crow — really nefarious ways in which those developers ended up getting land,” said Fletcher, the author of “Real Business: Maryland’s First Black Cemetery Journey’s Into the Enterprise of Death, 1807-1920.”
“Jim Crow allowed Black cemeteries to go unkempt, and city dollars flowed to white cemeteries. There’s a lot more to be said about how whites were just allowed to dislocate Black folks and trample all over Black cemeteries,” Fletcher said.
Although some cities across the country have — to varying degrees — supported the growing preservation movement, federal legislation has been slow to come. In 2020 the Senate passed a version of the African American Burial Grounds Network Act, which would create a database of historic Black burial grounds, help to preserve the sites, and provide grants for research, all under the National Park Service. Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., introduced the bill in 2019 in the House, where it has remained.
Like all facets of racism in the U.S., the injustice of destroyed and devalued Black cemeteries can be traced to slavery. Before emancipation, enslaved African Americans were largely buried on plantation grounds or plots of land owned by white people, usually with only rocks serving as grave markers. Freed African Americans were often buried in potter’s fields.
After emancipation, several African American cemeteries emerged, either on the land of Black churches or created by Black citizens. As much as these cemeteries are rich with tradition and history, they also tell stories of segregation and racism.
“There really were no legal protections for Black folks and their property,” said Antoinette Jackson, an anthropology professor at the University of South Florida and founder of the Black Cemetery Network. “So cemeteries were one of those things that were unprotected. That’s the underpinning of why lands where cemeteries sat were vulnerable.”
But now, because “people are a lot more vocal, a lot more knowledgeable,” she said that “people are not standing for this any more.”
Efforts at preservation are just as much about education as ethics, experts say, and Black cemeteries and their records are vital for historical research. Cemeteries are also cites of connection, where families can learn about their ancestors and honor them with memorials.
Yamona Pierce, 52, has always been interested in genealogy. She’s spent more than a decade tracking her family’s lineage, documenting names and former addresses. So when she learned that her third great-grandparents, farmers Owen Hood and Jane Hamilton Hood, were buried at the Pierce Chapel United Methodist Church cemetery in Midland, Georgia, she and her two teen daughters, Hannah and Leah, traveled from Washington, D.C., to see the burial grounds in 2019. Accompanied by her then-93-year-old aunt, Sarah Rozier, who lived in the area, Pierce and her daughters were giddy as they walked down the path to the burial grounds.
What they saw was unexpected.
“We were in disbelief. I had never seen anything like that,” Pierce said. “It was covered with trash and overgrown with brush. We had to move tree limbs so we could make our way into the cemetery. There were car tires, debris, auto parts. It was just a total mess.”
Pierce said she was “profoundly saddened” to see such a rich piece of her family’s legacy reduced to a dumping ground. What’s more, Rozier was certain they’d only seen a portion of the cemetery. The entire burial ground was much larger, but covered by impenetrable woods.
In the years that followed, Pierce founded the Hamilton Hood Foundation and set out to restore the Pierce Chapel Cemetery. For a long time, descendants of those buried in the cemetery, established in 1834, maintained the burial grounds, “but at some point the land owner put up a fence and a padlock and the descendants were told they were no longer allowed to come and maintain the cemetery. That’s one of the reasons the cemetery fell into disrepair,” Pierce said. Pierce said the owner has allowed the group to restore the cemetery, but has had little involvement in the process. The owner did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Pierce along with the Friends of Pierce Chapel African American Cemetery and volunteers have spent nearly three years cleaning out the cemetery and identifying people buried there. The group has also been lobbying the Georgia Power electric company and cable provider Mediacom to remove power and cable lines they installed. Pierce said she and other advocates contacted Georgia Power and Mediacom to remove the lines last spring, and Georgia Power removed its line last October. Pierce said Mediacom has agreed to take down its cable line, but has not set a date yet.
Chad Nation, a spokesperson for Georgia Power, said the power line had been placed over the cemetery at least 80 years ago. But when the company learned about it, “we moved quickly to remove and relocate the power line with reverence,” Nation said.
Pierce said the company crushed headstones during construction of the original power line decades ago, but Nation said, “It’s unclear that we caused any damage.” Mediacom spokesperson Tom Larsen told NBC News that the company is planning to remove its cable line and poles from the cemetery area in the coming weeks.
More preservation efforts are underway about 500 miles northeast, in Durham, North Carolina, where Friends of Geer Cemetery has partnered with a monument company, Eagle Scouts, and community organizations like Keep Durham Beautiful to restore and preserve Geer Cemetery. More than 1,600 Black people from the Durham area are buried at the cemetery, which was established around 1877. And the group has worked to clear out the land, hold tours for the public, and learn all it can about those buried at Geer through records and oral histories.
This content was originally published here.