Death has been called the great equalizer, but in America’s burial grounds, there are still dividing lines between white and Black cemeteries.
In our Genealogy Club session on April 14, historian Tammy Gibson presented Black Graves Matter, a tour of historic Black burial grounds and markers in the United States. In her lecture, Gibson provided details on the history of African-American burials, mourning customs, the development of Black cemeteries after the Civil War and the current state of these sites today. Beyond lack of funding, neglect, vandalism and the process of transitioning property into a historic site, it was sobering to see how commercial development has encroached on these endangered spaces.
When asked what can be done to protect, preserve and restore Black cemeteries, Tammy described her work with the Harmony Cemetery Project, an effort to restore discarded headstones from Columbian Harmony Cemetery, Washington D.C.’s largest historic Black burial place. Many headstones from this site were dumped in the Potomac River when the cemetery was relocated in the 1960s due to development around the Rhode Island Avenue-Brentwood Metro station. Columbian Harmony had been the final resting place for some of the city’s most illustrious Black citizens, such as Elizabeth Keckley (confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln), Philip Reid (craftsman and architect of the Freedom statue which sits atop the U.S. Capitol dome), as well as a number of Black Civil War veterans from the Union Army. Volunteers for the Harmony Cemetery Project are dedicated to raising funds to erect the discarded stones in a memorial park near the original cemetery site, as well as interviewing descendants of the individuals buried on the historic property.
Another question we received during the session centered on the separation of Black and white cemeteries and how long has it taken to integrate burial sites. Last year, mortician Caitlin Doughty interviewed Dr. Kami Fletcher from the The Collective for Radical Death Studies to discuss the topic of integration, the segregation of funeral homes and services as well as the role cemeteries and funerals have in Black culture. You can watch this conversation on Caitlin’s Ask A Mortician YouTube channel.
As our program fielded questions about preserving the historic burial grounds in local communities, the State of Illinois offers a comprehensive online guide to cemetery preservation which includes a downloadable PDF handbook, a section on laws governing Illinois cemeteries, restoration and preservation guides, web resources and how to report the discovery of skeletal remains on a site. If you or your organization are located outside the state, it is highly recommended to utilize the Illinois guide in conjunction with laws in your geographical vicinity.
Tammy Gibson will join us again virtually on June 9 at 7 p.m. CDT for The History of Juneteenth, which is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. This program is free and available via Zoom. You can register by phone at 630.685.4176 or sign up online.