December 9, 2019 |Da-Mosi M. Brown-Gorham | Community Development

Hidden Hallows: Documenting and Preserving African American Cemeteries in North Carolina

I was first introduced to cemetery conservation efforts at twelve years old. An industrial development in my hometown was planned on my ancestral burial site containing both former slaves, slaves, and slave owners. This brought together those two sides of our family, which was a powerful and remarkably healing experience. My second introduction was more recent, when I got the chance to be a part of the excavation of the Orton Plantation in Brunswick, North Carolina. I met members of the slave descendant Gullah community there, who talked about their culture and efforts to repatriate and relocate the remains of their ancestors into a new cemetery.

These experiences taught me the great importance this work has, due to its role in connecting current generations with their living history, and inspired me to work to become a Historic Cemetery Preservationist focused on the preservation of African American and Indigenous burial grounds.

The Conservation Fund’s 2019 Charles Jordan Internship couldn’t have been a better match for me. My internship project focused on identifying African American and Indigenous burial sites across North Carolina and researching resources that could help with preservation as well as support for education about the lives and cultures of the people interred at these sites.

To achieve some of these goals, I visited partner organizations that steward burial sites and other historic African American burial grounds to reveal some of the challenges and community benefits involved in the preservation of the sites. I interviewed congregants of St. Matthew’s AME Zion Church in Maxton, North Carolina to discuss some of the history of the community and the significance of the church within it.

Members of the St. Peter’s cemetery committee from St. Matthew’s AME Zion Church in Maxton shared the history of their community. Photo by Da-Mosi Brown-Gorham.

I was very fortunate to have learned how to run a successful cemetery preservation project from Ted Maris-Wolf, Jason McGarvey, and the ExPRT team of the Historic Evergreen Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. I also attended several conferences over the course of the internship, most notably the Association of Gravestone Studies (AGS) 2019 Annual Conference in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. AGS is the international organization of professionals that handle gravesite conservation, so to be able to attend the conference in my home state felt like so much more than a coincidence.

Da-Mosi (second from left) meets with the ExPRT Team of Historic Evergreen Cemetery to learn techniques and share ideas on how to successfully grow a grassroots cemetery preservation project. Photo by Ted Maris-Wolf.

In response to the findings of this research, I created the GRAACP repository. The GRAACP (pronounced “grasp”) is a repository of information and resources that supports preservation and stewardship of historic African American and Indigenous burial sites. Its focus areas include cemetery laws, historic preservation policies, gravestone conservation, education for stewards and the public, and funding opportunities. This resource is free-of-charge and is currently housed at the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources’ African American Heritage Council, the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology, and the Florida Public Archaeology Network. This is a living repository and will be updated as information becomes available. It is a goal of the project to develop the repository into a website.

We hope this in-state network would enhance communication, sharing of resources, and increased awareness. The network would also have the capacity to work toward State and Federal agency support and protection.

This headstone is in an unmanaged gravesite belonging to St. Matthew’s AME Zion Church in Maxton, North Carolina. Some of those buried there are unmarked; others date back to being born before the Civil War. Photo by Justine Post.

The spirit of my research is reflected in H.R. 1179, the African-American Burial Grounds Network Act introduced by U.S. Representatives A. Donald McEachin (Virginia 4th District) and Alma S. Adams (North Carolina 12th District). If enacted, the legislation will create a national voluntary network of African American burial grounds. It would also provide information, technical support, and grants to aid in the research, identification, preservation, and restoration of these sacred burial sites.

The year 2019 marks the 400thanniversary of the enslavement of Africans in America. We as citizens have a unique opportunity—and responsibility—to ensure that these sacred sites are preserved, stewarded, and uplifted to tell the story of our country and to give some solace to these communities by giving dignity in death to those denied it in life.

Enslaved Africans experienced extremely high mortality rates, with infant mortality at fifty percent, twice that of whites. Life expectancy for African Americans at that time was around twenty-two years, with whites living twice that long on average. Although slave owners typically furnished little for slaves to bury their kin other than a standard pine box, they did allow their slaves some time to bury their dead without intervention. Most often, death rites and funerals offered the only occasions when African traditions could be practiced unhindered.

In the years after the Civil War, African Americans—now free citizens by law if not practice—bore the expense of burying their family with dignity while simultaneously trying to financially support their families, avoid violence from whites, and navigate a dangerous new social order in the Jim Crow South. As if normal funeral expenses weren’t already beyond their means, segregation policies in city cemeteries and refusal of service from commercial cemeteries meant that the question of where to bury loved ones also loomed over the heads of these families.

This led to the rise of African American burial clubs, which collected funds from members to cover funerary costs. With mortality rates remaining high and funds low, many of these clubs didn’t last. As a result, the cemeteries they managed often fell into ruin. Many with family buried in these places attempted to care for the grounds, but the toll of socio-economic factors, legal factors—including property ownership, and the exodus of African-Americans from the South, known as the Great Migration—meant that most of these sites went unmanaged and were forgotten, and sometimes destroyed. In addition, many sites were lost due to intentional usurpation of land or destruction of burial records.

Ultimately, my goal is to create a historic trail that spans the state, highlighting burial sites with extraordinary historical and civil rights significance. Though ambitious, I hope that this vision, once realized, will serve as a model for other states. More importantly, I hope that it will provide some healing to communities that were adversely affected both socially and financially.

In the crowded underbrush of a Carolina pine forest, two hidden markers peek through. The Yucca, which is a significant grave marker from the Antebellum Period, and a fieldstone marker. Photo by Da-Mosi Brown-Gorham.

To The Conservation Fund’s Resourceful Communities program, I thank you for the opportunity to achieve my goals and work toward actualizing my vision, which is shared by so many. And to Justine Post, my supervisor on this project and the reason for this opportunity, many thanks are due. Thank you first and foremost for recognizing some of the issues that face African American burial sites. So many are unaware of the burden these sites can cause families that are already in economic struggle. It is the vast resources, network, and wisdom of Resourceful Communities and its team that have given me the head start necessary to make success possible.

Find Out More

CharlesJordanThe Charles Jordan Internship was established by The Conservation Fund to keep alive the passion, commitment and wisdom that Charles brought to his 20 years of leadership on our national Board of Directors.

Click here to apply for the 2020 Charles Jordan Internship

The Life and Legacy of Charles Jordan by Emily Korest (2018 Charles Jordan Intern)

Written by

Da-Mosi M. Brown-Gorham

Da-Mosi M. Brown-Gorham is a native of Kinston in eastern North Carolina and will graduate in December 2019 from Western Carolina University with a BS in Anthropology (concentration in Forensic Anthropology) and a BA in Philosophy and Religion (concentration in Religion). As The Conservation Fund’s 2019 Charles Jordan Intern, Da-Mosi worked on prioritizing the care and conservation of African American and Native American cemeteries in North Carolina.