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

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