As a child, Linda Davis and her mother used to break clay pots over their ancestors’ graves, allowing the flowers inside to grow.
When she returned to Brooklyn Cemetery in Athens, Georgia, decades later in 2009, her grandparents’ temporary grave markers had vanished, and the site had been overgrown with shrubs and overgrowth. Davis, on the other hand, felt at home there, and she knew it was up to her to restore the cemetery.
Similar Black cemeteries can be found all over the United States, telling the story of the country’s long history of cemetery segregation. As these cemeteries for the dead reflected the racial divisions of the living, Black communities banded together to defend the dignity of their ancestors and oppose racist cemetery policies.
Many Black Americans who were denied access to white-owned cemeteries created their own burial grounds, and their descendants are working to preserve the grounds. Racism still haunts these cemeteries, and many are in danger of being lost because they lack the support that other cemeteries have received.
Tony Burroughs, CEO of Chicago’s Center for Black Genealogy, began researching his family’s history in 1975, which led him to a cemetery in suburban Hillside, where he discovered the ashes of his grandparents, great-uncles, great-aunts, and great-great-grandparents.
In Chicago, wealthy white residents were laid to rest beside towering monuments on manicured lawns, while people of color and low-income residents were buried in potter’s fields soaked in quicklime and identified only by wooden paddles.
Black communities responded to being barred from white cemeteries or charged more “by drawing on a long history of Black self-help and community organizing,” Rosenow said, protesting in the Illinois Legislature and in the courts. In 1912, John Gaskill sued Forest Home Cemetery for refusing to bury his wife because of her race.
Black people were not the only ones who were denied access to white cemeteries or who organized to protect the dignity of their ancestors. The Chinese Cemetery of Los Angeles was founded in 1922 by a mutual aid group as a burial ground for Chinese Americans who were then prohibited from purchasing burial plots. Countless Native American tribes have spent decades reclaiming and reburying their ancestors’ remains.
The consequences of chronic underfunding are perhaps most visible at Thornton, Illinois’s long-abandoned Mount Forest Cemetery, where unkempt trees overhang a few crooked headstones peeking up from the grass. The ground sinks slightly in some places, indicating the location of a body.
Nadia Orton, a genealogist and family historian who has visited hundreds of cemeteries, expressed frustration that people always blame Black communities when cemeteries are abandoned or neglected.
She claimed that city leaders are frequently to blame for the neglect or demolition of Black cemeteries to make way for development projects. According to her, cemeteries are sometimes the last vestiges of Black communities that have been destroyed by projects or gentrified.
In many cases, the cemeteries that have been left behind are hidden. A golf course in Tallahassee, Florida, is built on top of a slave burial ground. In Williamsburg, Virginia, a Black church cemetery has been paved over. The University of Pennsylvania campus is built on top of a nineteenth-century Black cemetery. Bone fragments were discovered at the 126th Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus depot in East Harlem, New York, which was also a Black burial ground in the past.
After noticing how much money was allocated to preserving Confederate graves in the 1990s, Virginia Rep. A. Donald McEachin has been fighting for legislation to better protect Black burial spaces. McEachin was a co-sponsor of the African-American Burial Grounds Network Act in 2018. If the bill is passed, it will create a national database of historic Black burial grounds, assist in the creation of educational materials for the sites, and make grants available for additional research at the sites.
Davis intends to pave paths, construct a fence, and repair broken headstones with the help of local fundraisers and donations. She believes she is carrying on the legacy of her forefathers and Black community organizers who fought against cemetery segregation and helped build these cemeteries.