In an effort to honor and preserve Black life, Black folks across the US are organizing to care for historically Black burial grounds. Greenwood Cemetery, the first Black commercial burial ground, was founded in 1874 in St. Louis after the Civil War. More than 50,000 people were buried in Greenwood, including Harriet Scott, who, along with her husband, Dred Scott, unsuccessfully sued for their freedom. Their historic Supreme Court case was Dred Scott v. Sandford. Other notable figures buried in Greenwood were Charlton Hunt Tandy, a lawyer and Civil War veteran who assisted in freeing enslaved families; and, Lucy Delaney, who is most known for, “From the Darkness Cometh the Light,” a 1890s slave narrative.
The Greenwood Cemetery was conserved by members of the founding family until the late 1970s before it was sold and subjected to “severe neglect, abuse and vandalism,” noted the association. In 1999, a group of Black locals joined forces and formed the Friends of Greenwood to preserve the cemetery. However, in the subsequent years, many of the members had aged and were too old to maintain the land, causing it to disrepair again. Damages to the grave markers, overgrown woods, and severe erosion that exposed human bones, were some of the visible indications of the cemetery’s decline.
The Greenwood association is one of several groups across the country invested in restoring, preserving, and honoring centuries old Black burial sites. In states like Georgia, Missouri, and North Carolina, volunteers are fervently working to clean cemeteries and salvage headstones; advocates in both Virginia and Louisiana are resisting erasure and fighting developers to keep Black cemeteries operating and intact. Additionally, there are groups in Texas and Florida who are seeking justice for the myriad Black burial grounds that were paved over to construct highways and other properties. This fight for Black cemeteries is fought on many fronts, and Black advocates are organizing with the sincere desire for the nation to be accountable to honoring Black life and death.
The urge and movement to preserve Black cemeteries is inherently connected to the racist and predatory land practices that were birthed from the Jim Crow era, Kami Fletcher, an associate professor of history at Albright College and president of the Collective for Radical Death Studies, notes. Many Black towns and cemeteries were destroyed or obstructed for industrial developments. Fletcher notes, “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.” Fletcher, the author of “Real Business: Maryland’s First Black Cemetery Journey Into the Enterprise of Death, 1807-1920,” goes on to state, “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.”