My dearest phantasms:

February is Black History Month! I am a white lady in California who wants to honor Black heritage, so I’m going to do it the best way I know how by sticking to what I know – cemeteries and the historical afterlife.

You’ve heard me talk about what I call Burial Justice, which is the notion that the dead deserve respect and dignity, and that how we treat them tells us about the living. Humans that are erased, marginalized, or brutalized in life often suffer the same fate once they have died. This perpetuates harm to the living, it reminds people that some lives matter less to those in power.

There is a growing effort underway in the United States to recognize and restore the burial grounds of the enslaved and post-Reconstruction Black cemeteries. This movement is gaining traction as society grapples with the ways that racism and segregation have impacted Black lives. These burial sites are an incredible resource for history and archeology, and offer a tangible way to help right historical wrongs. Black burial grounds have been neglected and obscured, and their history with them. By improving and preserving them, we make that history more visible and honor the people who lived through it.

“Since the emancipation of enslaved Americans, their public memory has become abstract. Cemeteries, graveyards and memorials are visual reminders for us. They exist because we desire to memorialize those buried there. By gracing the sacred spaces of enslaved Americans with that same intention, we can give humanity and dignity to their memory.”

Sandra A. Arnold, Creator of the National Burial Database of Enslaved Americans

Antebellum Burial Grounds

In the South, enslaved people were typically buried on plantation land. Plots of land were set aside for cemeteries, usually on unproductive farm land. These locations were often wooded and hilly. Enslaved people marked graves with fieldstones and natural features like flowers and plants. Yucca, periwinkle, dogwood, and cedar were grown to signify burial spaces. Most stones were not inscribed, as law prohibited the enslaved from learning to read and write. Many of these spaces have been taken over by nature, and historians and archeologists use records, context clues, and land features to locate, study, and preserve them.

Some examples of antebellum burial grounds in the South:

Lynn Rainville, a professor at Sweet Briar College, wrote an excellent book about this subject if you want to learn more.

Enslaved people in the North were buried in graveyards specifically set aside for Black people. American history has done a good job of obscuring slavery in the original colonies and what we now think of as “the North,” but it was absolutely a thing. In the Northern states, however, the practice ended sooner and there were more free people of color. Black folks had more ability to congregate, worship, and organize, which led to nicer burial grounds, although these were strictly segregated.

Some examples of antebellum burial grounds in the North:

The Periwinkle Initiative and Professor Sandra A. Arnold are working on a Burial Database Project of Enslaved Americans. They put out a beautiful report about the project and the burial grounds they’ve studied – check it out here.

Post Civil War and Jim Crow

After the Civil War, Black cemeteries were established as churchyards or private organizations. The country was still very segregated, but cemeteries and funeral homes were among the first Black-owned businesses. Funeral and mortuary services were professions that offered social mobility to Black citizens in the North and the South. Black funeral directors amassed money and standing and became leaders in their communities. Many were active contributors to the Civil Rights Movement.

Black cemeteries were subject to the ravages of Jim Crow and “urban renewal,” however – leaving many abandoned, neglected, or displaced. Migration away from the South meant that cemeteries fell into disrepair, since burials slowed and descendants were not there to advocate. Many were demolished or paved over to create highways or housing. Without the large perpetual care endowments of white cemeteries, there were no funds for upkeep.

“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.

Liz Clappin at Tomb With a View Podcast has a two part episode about the history and plight of Black cemeteries in the US: listen here (Ep 70 and 71).

Also check out the Black Cemetery Network and the Collective for Radical Death Studies.

Some examples of Post-War burial grounds:

A photo of a stone and brick marker that reads "Geer Cemetery, 1877-1944"
Geer Cemetery, a Post-War burial ground

Get Involved!

One of the reasons I picked this topic is that it’s a history lesson with a purpose: we can act now to preserve these spaces. These spaces are threatened by development, industry, and climate change. They need advocates and money.

What we preserve tells us about who we are. It tells us whose lives, deaths, and stories matter most in our culture. For hundreds of years, we’ve tried to hide the evidence of slavery and Jim Crow by demolishing, moving, and letting the earth take Black burial grounds. Uncovering these spaces reveals their stories, and is key to moving toward national healing.

Take a look at these links and send them some money or time!