How saving cemeteries from weather impacts preserves Black history
When history is not always written in stone and the impacts of enslavement and segregation are apparent even in cemeteries, weather events from local floods to hurricanes are detrimental to both the dead and the living.
When public historian Valerie Wade is hired to help clients learn about their family history, her investigation often leads her to cemeteries.
On successful trips, she'll find the headstone she's looking for where personal history is written in stone, anchoring the individuals and their community to the location's memory. However, a mixture of city expansion, a lack of resources and life-changing weather events across the nation are impacting who is remembered.
Across the nation, activists and preservationists are fighting to save Black cemeteries and the personal histories they carry. One of the lasting impacts of segregation can be seen through the separation of white and Black cemeteries, and many of the latter across the United States have been overlooked, relocated or built over, contributing to not just the mistreatment of the dead, but also a loss of family history. In an article written in late 2020, titled "From Dust to Dust: Climate Change and Cemeteries," Wade expands on how race and class in America impact which cemeteries and histories are successfully preserved and which are lost.
"I think that climate change has these ripple effects," Wade told AccuWeather. "People don't automatically think about these things, but it does have a cultural impact. It does have an economic impact and cemeteries, and public history is just one way that I'm using to try and get people to think about the climate."
Valerie Wade, owner of Lynnfield Historical Consulting. (Blue Treasure Photography)
Wade's business, Lynnfield Historical Consulting, based in Houston, Texas, focuses on genealogy projects and historical research. In the times that her research has taken her to cemeteries, Wade found that headstone markers have generally provided reliable family history information, though it may differ from older census records.
"Census records, you have to take with a grain of salt, especially in communities of color because a long time ago, the census takers would sort of come by and they didn't necessarily take as much care with the spelling of names, or they didn't always care to really get everybody's birthday right," Wade said. "They may do an estimation, so that's why sometimes there is a tension between the written record and what you may see in a cemetery."
A headstone or even a specific family grave isn't always easy to find, however. Not everyone could afford a headstone or a long-lasting gravemarker for family members who passed. Some used a large rock or something else in its place to mark a grave. But people move away or are displaced and the knowledge of where someone is buried can get lost over time, according to Wade.
"There's always a bit of sadness and sometimes regret," Wade said, adding that the "what ifs" felt might revolve around wishing to have spoken more with a family member before a relative passed or paid more attention during a family reunion so that the knowledge wouldn't have gotten lost.
Tyrone Brooks, a veteran civil rights activist, walks through a historic African American cemetery where unknown graves are marked with white crosses and where one of the 1946 lynching victims is buried in Monroe, Ga., Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
"Sometimes people are just sad because it's a reminder of what our ancestors went through," Wade said. "Just a reminder that the way society was set up: It effectively meant that some people are worth remembering, you know, by nature of having the resources to have a big, nice headstone, and other people were not worth remembering. They were not afforded the resources to have sturdy gravemarkers that will stand the test of time."
A headstone was a luxury, she added. It was also an anchor that tied a family to a location, even when a powerful storm threatened displacement.
For many, including Wade, the devastation to community history reached a crescendo with Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"I was in college at the time, and that was the first time I really saw footage of caskets just floating and people's relatives just in the water," Wade said. "That was the first time that became salient for me like, 'Oh, wow. History has literally been uprooted and it's literally being swept away in the aftermath of this storm.'"
Nearly 1,000 coffins had been displaced due to the storm, according to NPR, the floodwaters having buoyed the vaults. Due to the high water table, many graves in New Orleans are either above ground, such as in a mausoleum, or shallow burial plots. The displacement of coffins also became a problem following Hurricane Laura in 2020 and Ida in 2021.
In this image made from video, Willie Brooks III says speaks about the grave of his grandmother and how it's gone due to flooding, Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016, in Plainview Cemetery in Denham Springs, La. With an estimated 40,000 homes damaged by deadly flooding, Louisiana could be looking at its biggest housing crunch since the miserable, bumbling aftermath of Hurricane Katrina a decade ago. (AP Photo/Joshua Replogle)
It was in the aftermath of Katrina that Wade first started thinking about how weather impacted communities in tangible ways, ranging from destroyed homes to the family heirlooms swept away. Not only were roofs gone, but so were precious family photos, scrapbooks, letters and family recipes. And with sites that anchored multiple communities destroyed, it raised the questions about whether rebuilding was possible, and ultimately who would stay.
"Since Katrina in New Orleans, we've seen how the city has changed. Some people would say for better, others would say for worse, but it's just undeniable that it's not the same city since Katrina," Wade said. "So many of the people that made New Orleans what it was and made the French Quarter what it was, they just couldn't afford to return after the storm."
More than 175,000 Black residents left New Orleans in the year following the storm, and more than 75,000 never returned as residents, according to a 2015 analysis by FiveThirtyEight.
The remnants of a home destroyed by Hurricane Katrina sit on a lot for sale on Deslonde Street in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, Monday, Aug. 17, 2015. (AP Photo/Max Becherer)
It doesn't always take a hurricane to displace a family, however. Even with just a heavy rain event that makes a house unlivable, a family might not be able to afford to rebuild and stay in the same area as the cemetery where deceased family members are buried. There's also the added weight of the resources it takes to recover a cemetery that has long needed help.
In Houston, where the preservation of cemeteries has been wrought with complications brought on by a city susceptible to flooding and one that occasionally lies in the path of hurricanes, Wade says that oftentimes people might not have the resources or "people power" to keep up with maintaining cemeteries.
"A lot of these cemeteries don't fall into disrepair because people don't care," Wade said. "I think that's an oversimplification of what's really going on. It takes money. It takes resources. It takes time. If somebody's working two or three jobs to survive, maybe preserving their family cemetery is not a priority, but that still doesn't mean that they just don't care."
Organizations with objectives ranging from upkeeping to mapping and cataloging cemeteries have arisen from efforts to preserve history and take care of the final resting place of a stranger's family member. In Lebanon, Pennsylvania, Friends of Lebanon Cemetery (FOLC) is one such group made up of volunteers who work to clean burial sites and connect with family members who previously hadn't been able to pay respect to the departed due to being unable to find the marker.
Rain contributed to hundreds of flat stone grave markers sinking anywhere from between 6 inches and about a foot below ground at the cemetery. Volunteers installed drainage systems underneath a few of the markers during the fall of 2021, and volunteer Samantha Dorm told AccuWeather National Reporter Sarah Gisriel at the time that if those modifications do well through the winter months, then they'll return in the spring to add on to the system.
Images of a few of those laid to rest at Lebanon Cemetery. (AccuWeather / Sarah Gisriel)
The Texas Freedom Colonies Project, directed by Dr. Andrea Roberts, an assistant professor of Urban Planning at Texas A&M University, is an initiative aimed at "supporting the preservation of Black settlement landscapes, heritage, and grassroots preservation practices through research." Part of this has included building the Texas African American Cemetery Registry, which is a voluntary database of Black burial grounds across the state.
Efforts to preserve and catalog these places have reached a federal level as well.
Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown plans to reintroduce the bipartisan African American Burial Grounds Network Act in the coming weeks, which would establish a new program to preserve historic African American burial grounds and provide federal assistance to ensure the burial sites are maintained for future generations. The legislation comes during a time when many "lost" historic Black cemeteries are being discovered under the infrastructure of expanding cities.
In Dallas, part of the North Central Expressway was built over some of the graves of the Freedman's Cemetery in the mid-1900s.
"Black graves were simply paved over, headstones used as rubble to help fill ditches and low spots," the Texas Observer reported, quoting the writings of a Dallas Observer columnist in 1999.
However, situations like this are not exclusive to the 19th or 20th century.
In West Virginia, concern grew in 2019 that nearby industrial construction projects could impose upon the outskirts of the Boyde Carter Cemetery in Jefferson County, a cemetery that is believed to hold the graves of people who had been enslaved and has characteristics of traditional African American burial grounds like yucca, daffodils, lilies and rose bushes marking graves. The project maps had incorrectly drawn the boundary of the property lines and the shaded area that indicated the cemetery was portrayed as much smaller than it is in actuality.
In Houston, city expansion is still playing a large role in separating people from caring for family graveyards. Wade explained how in Houston, there are sites that have been torn up and smaller communities displaced for things like highway expansion. As places like the Houston Inner Loop or the area inside the loop that Interstate 610 forms grow, families that have stayed in the area for generations are being pushed out and away from family cemeteries as economics change.
"If the people who maybe established a cemetery all live miles and miles away now, what happens to that small cemetery?" Wade asked. "All the people who cared about it aren't near it anymore, so in some ways, the growth of a city and changing economics does directly affect lost cemeteries because it doesn't take long for these places to get forgotten."
Milton J. Chambliss, of Port Gibson, Miss., clears grass from a grave of a relative in Mt. Olive Cemetery, a four-acre plot east of Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017. Chambliss, who grew up in Jackson, remembers how the burial grounds suffered from years of deferred maintenance. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Burial sites that hold predominantly Black Americans -- a record in itself of segregation even after death -- have been found beneath parking lots, building complexes and highways. A large aspect of weather's role in the loss of gravesites isn't necessarily separate from infrastructure and development.
The 2021 study "Preservation at the Intersections: Patterns of Disproportionate Multihazard Risk and Vulnerability in Louisiana's Historic African American Cemeteries" compared cemeteries' exposure to flood hazards and proximity to hazardous chemical sites in southern Louisiana's "Cancer Alley" based on racial makeup.
The authors considered graveyards in St. James and Ascension parishes by their racial makeup, their location in the 100-year floodplain or 500-year floodplain as well as how close they were to one or more of the chemical plants. They found that not only were Black cemeteries disproportionately located in an area that was more likely to see flooding than their white counterparts but eight known Black cemeteries were located within the 2-mile radius of one or two of the facilities, which would have limited a visitor's ability to maintain the grave of a family member after any flooding events.
No white cemeteries were located within the same radius of any plant.
"Land use plans and planning cultures that incentivize plant sitting near predominately African American settlements and community anchors exacerbate the existing susceptibility to postdisaster impacts such as flooding by inhibiting visitation and ways to protect sites and mitigate harm legally," the authors wrote.
They recommended that the state invest funds in grassroots groups of residents who could play a role in documenting cemeteries in state historical cemetery databases, using the resulting data to help professionals map missing cemeteries. Then, with the right support, advocacy groups could collaborate with state agencies and parish land-use planners to help record the cemeteries and keep them at a safe distance from plants.
For Wade, part of preserving the past while also preparing for the future looks like building in a more sustainable way, cautioning against building without thinking about the long-term effect when considering climate change. However, addressing one factor won't make up for the other barriers when it comes to taking care of cemeteries.
"All of these issues are interconnected," Wade said. "I think sometimes people want a sort of a one-step solution to a lot of these problems, and one thing that has become very evident through this work is that, no, there's not like just one thing."
She added that even if climate change could be 100% addressed, that in itself wouldn't automatically fix income inequality or fix housing access.
There is still something that people at the local level can do to help make a difference, like volunteering to upkeep and catalog graves before they are lost to history.
"We can all do something small to help out," Wade said.
Additional reporting by Sarah Gisriel.
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