Black cemeteries are reflection of deep segregation history

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Tombstones at the Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Portsmouth, Va., Tuesday, March 23, 2021. Many Black Americans excluded from white-owned cemeteries built their own burial spaces, and their descendants are working to preserve the grounds. Racism still haunts these cemeteries, though. Many are at risk of being lost and lack the support other cemeteries have received. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

CHICAGO – As a child, Linda Davis and her mother broke clay pots over the gravesites of their ancestors, allowing the flowers in them to take root.

When she returned to Brooklyn Cemetery in Athens, Georgia, decades later in 2009, her grandparents' temporary grave markers were lost, and shrubs and overgrowth blanketed the site. But it still felt like home to Davis, and she knew then 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 said.

Similar Black cemeteries are scattered throughout the United States, telling the story of the country’s deep past of cemetery segregation. As these burial grounds for the dead mirrored the racial divisions of the living, Black communities organized to defend the dignity of their deceased and oppose racist cemetery policies.

Many Black Americans excluded from white-owned cemeteries built their own burial spaces, and their descendants are working to preserve the grounds. Racism still haunts these cemeteries, though, and many are at risk of being lost and lack the support other cemeteries have received.

Tony Burroughs, CEO of Chicago’s Center for Black Genealogy, began tracing his family’s ancestry in 1975, which led him to a cemetery in suburban Hillside, where he found the remains of his grandparents, great-uncles, great-aunts and great-great-grandparents.

“I’m in the process of telling their story, because they can no longer tell their story," Burroughs said.

“Blacks have had to fight to get equal rights in every facet of life, including death," he added.