A push in Chicago, elsewhere to save Black cemeteries, a reflection of a nation’s history of segregation
‘Blacks have had to fight to get equal rights in every facet of life, including death,’ says Tony Burroughs, CEO of Chicago’s Center for Black Genealogy.
As a child, Linda Davis and her mother broke clay pots over the graves of their ancestors, letting the flowers in the pots take root.
Decades later, when she returned in 2009 to Brooklyn Cemetery in Athens, Georgia, her grandparents’ temporary grave markers had been lost. Shrubs and overgrowth blanketed the site.
But it still felt like home to Davis. She decided it was up to her to restore the cemetery.
“When I walk through the cemetery, it’s like walking down the old streets of my community,” she says.
Black cemeteries scattered across the United States tell a story of the country’s past cemetery segregation: Many Black Americans excluded from white-owned cemeteries built their own burial spaces.
Now, their descendants are working to preserve the grounds, many of them at risk of being lost.
Tony Burroughs, chief executive officer of Chicago’s Center for Black Genealogy, began tracing his family’s ancestry in 1975. That led him to Oakridge Cemetery in Hillside, where he found his grandparents, great-uncles, great-aunts and great-great-grandparents had been buried and nearly forgotten.
“I realized they were right under my feet,” Burroughs says. “I can resurrect my ancestors that are not in history books but they live. They survive….And it’s up to me to tell their stories.”
In Chicago, wealthy white people were laid to rest beside towering monuments in manicured lawns while people of color and low-income residents were buried in potter’s fields soaked with quicklime, with only wooden paddles identifying their locations.
“There are few areas of life that bigotry and discrimination do not touch,” says Michael Rosenow, who teaches history at the University of Central Arkansas. “Even cemeteries became battlegrounds for dignity.”
Black communities responded to being barred from white cemeteries or being charged more “by drawing on a long history of Black self-help and community organizing,” Rosenow says.
In Chicago, they protested in the Illinois Legislature. The fight continued in the courts when, in 1912 John Gaskill sued Forest Home Cemetery for refusing to bury his wife because of her race.
“Blacks have had to fight to get equal rights in every facet of life, including death,” Burroughs says.
Black people weren’t the only ones excluded from white cemeteries. The Chinese Cemetery of Los Angeles was established by a mutual aid group in 1922 as a burial ground for Chinese Americans then barred from buying burial plots. Countless Native American tribes have mounted decadeslong efforts to reclaim and rebury their ancestors’ remains.
Many groups built their own cemeteries as “a form of resistance,” according to Rosenow.
But without the same generational wealth and access to resources, Black cemeteries were at a disadvantage.
One place where the effects of this chronic underfunding can be seen is in the south suburbs, where, at Thornton’s long-abandoned Mount Forest Cemetery, unkempt trees overhang a few crooked headstones. The ground sinks in spots, marking where a body may lay.
It frustrates Nadia Orton, a genealogist and family historian who has visited hundreds of cemeteries, that people assume Black communities are to blame when their cemeteries are abandoned or neglected.
“They’re trying,” Orton says. “They just haven’t had the help. And they don’t have the resources.”
She says government leaders often are responsible for the neglect of Black cemeteries or for bulldozing them to make way for development.
Many of the cemeteries left behind are hidden. A Tallahassee, Florida, golf course lays atop a burial space for slaves. A Black church cemetery has been paved over in Williamsburg, Virginia. The University of Pennsylvania campus sits atop a 19th century Black cemetery. Bone fragments were found at the 126th Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus depot in East Harlem, New York, which also was once a Black burial ground.
Orton’s great-great-great-grandfather founded a community near Suffolk, Virginia, the city where Orton lives. A hotel parking lot sits where a cemetery once did.
Virginia state Rep. A. Donald McEachin has been pushing to better protect Black burial spaces after noticing in the 1990s how much money was allocated to preserving Confederate graves. McEachin helped introduce the African-American Burial Grounds Network Act in 2018, which, if it passes, would create a nationwide database of historic Black burial grounds, help produce educational materials for them and make grants available for research at the sites.
When Linda Davis decided to restore the Georgia cemetery, she began the painstaking work of clearing debris and overgrowth. She kept remnants of vases, plates and urns in place.
“Even when it was in its worst disrepair, you could always find a grave that was being tended to, a couple fresh flowers, some kind of sign someone was still watching and caring,” she says.
“I believe I am walking in the spirit of the people who wanted a better resting place for their community.”