Tuesday, November 18, 2008

SEAC 2008

Last week I attended the annual Southeastern Archaeology Conference annual meeting.  I attended every cemetery paper/presentation I could, and I learned quite a bit.  I was happy to see that there were several papers on African American cemeteries, so it's a topic that is finding its way into current archaeological research.  This blog really isn't about the nitty-gritty details of archaeology, so I'll jump ahead to and summarize a few points. 

The key point that was brought home in several papers was the need for community involvement.  The form of this involvement ranged from finding local geneologists who could provide more information on the cemetery to involving a local Boy Scout troop in the clean up and maintenance of a cemetery.  Community involvement is really important, and an area I may be lacking in on my own project.  I will have to consider that!

Following up on that point, is the involvement of young people.  Cemetery preservation is a great way to learn about history, historic preservation, anthropology and archaeology, as well as a host of other topics.  It gives students a break from the tired old sit-in-class/take-test-in-class/repeat routine, and offers them the chance to consider careers they may not have considered before.  

I will probably be expanding on this later, but for now I'd like to pose the question:  What are you doing in your own projects and how can you involve the community?  
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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Graveyard Rabbit

The Graveyard Rabbit Association is a newly formed group of bloggers who are following a common theme of cemeteries and graveyards.  There are numerous blogs covering different geographic areas and containing a huge assortment of useful information.  Whether you are a genealogist, cemetery researcher, or just interested in cemeteries there's something for you!  The association is also accepting memberships.  No dues, just 3 simple steps.  Check them out!

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Saturday, November 1, 2008

An overview of cemeteries.

I'm watching A Cemetery Special on PBS.  It looks at several cemeteries across the US and gives a brief history and a look at the different ways in which the dead are memorialized.  If you can catch it on TV I recommend it.  

It may just be my current pre-occupation with cemeteries, but it seems that there's been more stories in the news lately.  It's possibly the season - Halloween tends to bring out the cemetery stories.  

So, in honor of A Cemetery Special I encourage you all to take a non-spooky tour of a local cemetery!  Find the oldest grave, most unusual marker, quietest spot, whatever.  Be respectful, but remember that cemeteries are about remembering individuals and, collectively, our history. 
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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Black Bottom Cemetery in the news again.

Black Bottom Cemetery in Belhaven, NC is once again in the news. WRAL out of Raleigh did a story on it, here. In addition, there's an extended segment at b-roll.net, here.

They did a fair job of coverage, the videography in the piece is quite well done, although the decision to include video of the bones that are visible in the crypts is something I wish the videographer had left out.

Most interesting to me, however, has been the reaction to the story. There's been the usual "that's so sad" posts, along with at least one "cemeteries are a waste of space" post. In addition to these there have been several that are absolutely incensed that tax money is being used to restore a black cemetery, and that the families aren't out there clearing brush every Saturday.

The problem with this attitude is twofold. Many families no longer live in the area, having moved elsewhere to find jobs and the city has maintained the white cemetery for years, but provided no maintenance for the historically black cemetery. It's not a case of the black cemetery being specially privileged, it's a case where the cemetery is being given the same treatment after decades of neglect. Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Cemeteries, abandoned.

I found an article and video today from WESH titled Citizens Upset over Abandoned Graveyard. The brief articles mentions the plight of Hilltop Cemetery, a predominately African American cemetery in Cocoa, FL. The cemetery is suffering from neglect, with vaults collapsing and exposing human remains. The story really isn't that different from others I've heard up and down the coast - an African American cemetery in ruins, ownership of the land is unclear, and no maintenance is done. It seems to happen for a variety of reasons. In the South, land ownership by African Americans was rare in the 19th century. Slavery, a depressed economy after the Civil War, and laws which made it difficult for African Americans to own land.
In the case of these African American cemeteries, it seems that the land for the cemetery was either provided by a sympathetic landowner, was land that had been used for a slave cemetery, or sometimes the African American community managed to buy plots of land for use as cemeteries. No matter how the land was acquired, ownership is commonly unclear, city maintenance is non-existent, and following the migration of many African Americans from the south to urban areas in the northern part of the US many cemeteries were abandoned, or at least semi-abandoned, simply because there was no one left to care for them.
As a result, these cemeteries become abandoned, forgotten, and fall in disrepair. These cemeteries represent an important turning point in African American history. Many of these cemeteries which were founding in the late 19th century may be the first instances of families really being free to decide how they will bury and commemorate their loved ones. As such, there are unique expressions in the form of markers made of locally available material, unique decorations, and a sense of "make do" that illustrates the resourcefulness of a people who were now free in law, but suffering under few economic opportunities and increasingly hostile "Jim Crow" laws. As such they should be viewed not only as cemeteries, but as historic sites preserving the heritage of African Americans. Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Black Bottom Cemetery

The first cemetery I am working at is the Black Bottom Cemetery in Belhaven, NC. It's a large African American cemetery that is somewhat unique in that was an unofficial (in that the town did not maintain it) community cemetery for the African American population of Belhaven from the late 19th century through the late 20th century. The cemetery has been largely neglected and some of the vaults are in poor shape, with human remains visible.

Through the work of the local Church Women United chapter and Mrs. Alma Whitacre the city has agreed to do grounds keeping on the cemetery and repair the most damaged crypts. In addition, simple wooden markers are being erected to mark the currently unmarked graves.

My primary involvment in this project has been mapping the location of all visible graves, marked and unmarked. The unmarked graves are visible as sunken grave shafts. It has been an interesting project, to say the least. The restoration of the cemetery has made it into the news, here's the articles:

My favorite article, from the Beaufort Observer. Note that the cemetery is significantly larger than the 150-200 individuals estimated in the article. In addition, there are two cemeteries adjacent to each other, Black Bottom comprises the older, larger, cemetery which is located behind the newer, still active part. I have been unable to determine the name of the active cemetery and it seems that the ownership and management of this portion is not as clear cut as one might like. The second article is a bit shorter, but interesting as well.

The cemetery is interesting in and of itself. I will be posting more about it as the mapping project continues, approximately 25-30% of the cemetery remains to be mapped at a minimum. The current count of graves, marked and unmarked, stands at approximately 240. What has been most interesting to me, and what has led to my thesis topic, has been the layout of the cemetery. It follows a completely different pattern of layout than contemporaneous Anglo American and Euro American cemeteries in this region. The type of materials used for markers, the prevalence of locally made made markers with simple "homemade" and folk decorations, and the history of the cemetery sets it apart. Many of the oldest graves are marked by nothing more than a grave shaft and a shell or a ceramic vessel, although according to oral traditions there were at one point wooden markers for all the graves in the cemetery. These seem to have suffered from decay, vandalism, and misguided attempts at groundskeeping and none of these wooden markers remain. Sphere: Related Content

Friday, May 2, 2008

Useful Websites

It's been a while since I updated. My thesis proposal has been approved, field work will begin shortly.

I will be posting a list of books that have been useful in the near future, today I'm going to post a couple of websites of other projects and organizations doing work with cemeteries.

First up, the African American Cemeteries forum:

Primarily a geneological site, but if you're doing genealogical research it's a good resource.

African American Cemeteries Online

A list of known African American Cemeteries nation wide. Geared mostly at geneology studies, once again, but a useful resource.

Chicora Foundation on the Web:

A non-profit heritage preservation organization based in South Carolina, they have some useful information on their web site regarding cemetery preservation.

Association for Gravestone Studies:

A professional organization devoted to gravestone studies and cemetery studies in general. Their journal, Markers, is one of the few in the field. If you are interested in gravestone or cemetery studies, you should consider joining.

Finally, a North Carolina cemetery preservation project. Mission Resurrection-Cemetery Preservation:

A project that is attempting to restore and preserve African American cemeteries in Onslow County, NC. They are not a "not-for-profit" organization, which is interesting, although it may be due to lack of time and funding to go through the hoops of legally becoming a non-profit.

I'll be posting additional resources as I find them, as well as updates on my project.
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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Folk Markers and African-American Cemeteries

I have begun the process of locating cemeteries for my thesis. I now have 3 cemeteries spread out across 2 counties, and a few more possible locations. My most recent search has turned up a couple of very well made folk markers. Both are made of concrete, but differ in form and decoration. So far the presence of these type of markers appears to be a characteristic of African-American cemeteries in this area.

So what is a folk marker? As I am using the term it refers to a marker made out of locally available materials, commonly concrete, by either the relatives of the deceased or a local individual who specializes in these type of markers. They can be less expensive than commercially produced quarried stone markers; however, they also allow for the expression of motifs and shapes which generally have not been available in commercial markers. Here are a couple of examples:

This is a close-up of what I am interpreting as a rose which was drawn in the wet concrete of this marker. This is on a flat, concrete vault. An identical image was drawn on the cast-concrete headstone. On both parts of this marker the lettering and imagery are well executed.

The second marker is a bit different, it is cast in the form of a cross, painted white, and decorated with reflectors. It is in a different cemetery than the first marker. Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, March 2, 2008

A little bit about your author and this blog...

For the first post in a new blog an introduction seems to be in order. So, without further ado:

I'm a Master's student majoring in anthropology with a focus on historic archaeology. A lifelong interest in history has led to a thesis on cemeteries. African-American cemeteries to be precise, although I'm interested in cemeteries in general. My approach is, perhaps, a bit different in that I am focusing less on headstones (although they remain an important component of my studies) and more on the use of landscape and materials in a space designated for the burial/memorialization of the deceased.

This blog is an outgrowth of my interest. I'll most likely post the occasional status report on thesis research should there be interest. My primary purpose in writing this blog, however, is to share interesting information I come across. There are many amateur historians who may not have access to academic materials such as professional journals. In addition there are plenty of genealogical researchers who do invaluable service to researchers of all sorts by recording and making available cemetery information. Through this blog I will make available anything of interest I come across.

So, for the first entry, I will end with a mention of the Association for Gravestone Studies (http://www.gravestonestudies.org/). The AGS makes available for purchase several excellent guides to cemetery preservation and recording. In addition, they publish Markers, a scholarly journal, as well as organizing an annual conference. While there is a strong emphasis on New England, the AGS continues to expand in geographic area. Most definitely worth checking out. Sphere: Related Content