Black Deaths Matter

Black Deaths Matter

Historic black cemeteries have devolved into trash dumps and overgrown forests, while tidy Confederate memorials still draw public funding.


On a spring morning a few years ago in St. Louis, Missouri, Etta Daniels, a spry 72-year-old with oval wire-frame glasses, was in the northeast corner of Greenwood Cemetery, where she often came on Saturdays, searching for gravestones “before they disappear.” She’d already spent more than a decade helping families locate and honor their loved ones buried in Greenwood. That day, she was joined by 69-year-old Barbara Harris, who is “not usually one to go to the woods.” Wearing gardening gloves and long sleeves to keep off the poison ivy and bugs, Harris was hoping that, with Daniels’s help, she could find her great-grandmother’s grave.

“We had to crawl over great big trees that had fallen,” Harris says of the trek through one of St. Louis’s oldest African-American cemeteries, founded less than a decade after the Civil War. “I wanted to find her grave again, but the stones are all covered and the paths, you can’t find them.”

In the thick forest that Greenwood has become, the once-grassy plot where Harris’s great-grandmother, Henrietta Flowers Ware, was buried in 1966 had disappeared. Back then, Greenwood’s 32 acres were well kept, the lawns mowed close by the cemetery’s owners and by the families and funeral homes that patronized it. But by the late 1980s, Harris found whole sections uncut, the ravines piled with trash and junked cars. On her final trip to Greenwood, Harris’s car got stuck on one of the roads. “I didn’t feel it was safe to visit anymore,” she says.

Greenwood’s crawling vines and cottonwood trees are now easily mistaken for an undeveloped swath of dense green amid the streets of Hillsdale, a struggling suburb in northern St. Louis County. But Greenwood is not undeveloped; like the municipalities that surround the cemetery, where as many as 50,000 bodies are buried, it is the product of divestment. The same crooked inheritance that confines lives in North County, as locals call the cluster of nearly all-black towns north of St. Louis, also covers the graves of Greenwood.

In the community that helped the Black Lives Matter movement grip the national conscience, all three commercial cemeteries founded for the burial of black bodies have fallen into disrepair. In the 1990s, one of these was dug up to make room for an airport expansion. In Greenwood, in the bareness of winter, fallen gravestones can be spotted through brittle reeds. By summertime, they’ve disappeared. Barbara Harris’s story is repeated by one St. Louis family after the next: visits to loved ones’ graves thwarted by overgrowth and poison ivy.

It’s the same across the United States. “This is the situation we observe: There’s a black cemetery on the other side of the hill, and it began around the same time as the white one, and the white one is in fine shape—the black one is not,” says Michael Trinkley, whose South Carolina–based Chicora Foundation conducts archeological studies of cemeteries. Their decline is tied directly to past and present patterns of investment: Memorials to white lives are left in trust, padded with private and public wealth; collective memorials to black lives fall into the red financially and slip from view. “The underlying problem is that black cemeteries have been left without the resources necessary to operate,” Trinkley notes.

It was nine years after Emancipation that Herman Krueger, a German immigrant, left his position as supervisor of an established cemetery called St. Peter’s and started Greenwood in pursuit of a newly opened market. In the wake of the Civil War, formerly enslaved people, who had often been buried in unmarked plots, were gaining access to what one scholar has called the American “principle of one person, one grave.” As Reconstruction receded into Jim Crow, cemeteries became formally segregated, and in 1874 Krueger acquired a parcel of land a half-mile from St. Peter’s. Greenwood became the first nonsectarian commercial cemetery for the black residents of St. Louis.

Krueger’s descendants, businesspeople who traded in moonshine and heating coal on the side, sold graves to black families for 100 years. “That was our livelihood,” says Marlene Foelsch Britt, Krueger’s great-great-great- granddaughter, who grew up in a small brick house that once sat on the front section of Greenwood.

In the 1940s and ’50s, Britt recalls, a bell would ring, and her uncles and grandfather would harness the Clydesdales in the two-story barn to pull the digging tool and prepare a grave. On funeral days and Memorial Day, relatives of the dead would ride the streetcar from the city to Greenwood, where flower peddlers were waiting, selling geraniums to mourners.

The Foelsch family thrived on the captive market of segregation. As many as 90 percent of public cemeteries in the mid-1900s included restrictive covenants in their rules, one judge estimated in a 1953 court decision. As with neighborhoods, the covenants protected whites from fears of racial mixing. Even after the Supreme Court deemed state enforcement of racially restrictive covenants unconstitutional in 1948, cemeteries, like real-estate markets, continued to enforce private exclusions.

For Barbara Harris’s family, Greenwood was nonetheless a refuge of green. Long after the funerals, they could retreat there, away from the stresses of city life. “My mother and I used to go to the cemetery once every two weeks. We would carry flowers and geraniums and rose bushes, and we would go there and eat our lunch,” Harris says. “I think about how beautiful it was, and about all the families who would go up there.”

In the early 1970s, the enforced racial boundaries that cities had upheld through public policy and private agreements started to soften. As St. Louis decimated its public-housing system and cast thousands of black families out of the city, North County neighborhoods began to shift. A quarter of Hillsdale’s 2,600 residents in 1970 were black. White panic about black neighbors and integrating schools, and ongoing real-estate steering, propelled white flight into overdrive. By the early 1990s, Hillsdale and Velda Village Hills, just north of Greenwood, were both nearly 95 percent African-American.

Today, Hillsdale has a median household income less than half the state’s average. The Normandy Schools Collaborative there is unaccredited. When Hillsdale kids walk home, passing Greenwood Cemetery and the small municipal court down the hill on Jesse Jackson Avenue, they return to streets pocked with empty lots. Their families dodge the police deployed to fill the revenue gap left by fleeing homeowners. Over one-quarter of Hillsdale’s income in 2014 came from court fees for traffic tickets and other fines.

Sherry McMurphy, 51, Herman Krueger’s great-great-great-great-granddaughter, recalls the neighborhoods around Greenwood deteriorating and changing demographically—and also her grandparents’ reaction. “My grandpa put up a fence and had dogs,” McMurphy says. “It went downhill. It was not safe.”

The Foelsches got rid of Greenwood in the mid-’70s, hiring out the care of the grounds and then offloading the cemetery to extended relatives. “My grandpa was able to have a retirement from that cemetery,” McMurphy says. In 1979, the house they lived in burned to the ground. In the early ’80s, the family sold the land.

McMurphy reckons that if business had remained strong, their family might still be running Greenwood. Yet as black neighborhoods suffered the fallout of re-segregation, families began burying their loved ones in newly desegregated and better-resourced, historically white cemeteries.

“The decision [to desegregate] has come to reward us,” says Bill Baumgartner, who is white and the current superintendent of St. Peter’s, which had allowed black burials only in a small separate section until the 1960s. “The neighborhood is all African-American now. Nearly all our burials are African-Americans.”

In a section of St. Peter’s filled with small headstones, Michael Brown was laid to rest last year. His burial place is in view of at least 15 other graves of young men and women, most of them killed by guns wielded by other civilians on the streets of St. Louis County. The location of their graves is a kind of backward, twisted progress: In death, black victims of American violence, even in one of America’s most segregated places, can rest beside white bodies. Their grandparents, however, lie buried under weeds and trash.

* * *

Etta Daniels’s desk in the living room of her St. Louis apartment is piled with photocopies of cemetery records. For 10 years, she has been slowly building an archive of the dead, photographing gravestones in the woods and scouring burial records. “Every time I start digging, I find another story about St. Louis,” she says, and begins listing the names of men and women buried in Greenwood whose biographies she’s been piecing together. She and other volunteer researchers have found a mother lode of black St. Louis history: Maya Angelou’s grandmother; black veterans of the Civil War and every American war until Vietnam; the outlaw Lee Shelton; civil-rights leader Charleton Tandy; Lucy Ann Delaney, a writer and former slave; and Daniels’s great- grandmother, Sallie Jones Ross, who was part of the Great Migration from Mississippi as well as a survivor of the East St. Louis riots. “You find a rich history of black St. Louis that we don’t even talk about,” Daniels adds. “The issue here is that so much stuff gets covered up.”

Daniels buried her great-grandmother in Greenwood in the late 1970s. She left St. Louis as a young woman to work on the East Coast. When she returned decades later, in 1999, she was shocked by what she found: “There was no way to get into Greenwood. I could not find my grandmother’s grave.” For her, this was a betrayal. “You are taught that you need to come back to take care of your family’s grave. That’s a tradition,” she says.

Daniels went looking for answers as to why Greenwood fell apart. In the intervening years, the cemetery had passed through a cycle of divestment and neglect that was typical of ghettoized black communities more broadly. By the mid-’70s, the Foelsches had begun to shift responsibility for the upkeep of cemetery plots to relatives of the dead. Rose Jordan, 67, buried her mother in Greenwood in 1975. Her husband Charlie, then a foreman at the St. Louis Boeing plant, would rise early every Saturday to tend the family section. “If we didn’t, who would?” she said recently.

The Foelsches and their hired groundskeepers departed, and for the next several years, the family owned the cemetery in absentia. By the middle of the 1980s, the official ownership records had become murky: The grounds passed to at least three owners, including one with business interests in other cemeteries. Families with loved ones buried in Greenwood didn’t know whom to call about the declining grounds, and few funeral homes would bury someone there. “We used to have problems once we got there,” recalls Aaron Grimes, who has worked in St. Louis’s black funeral homes for 39 years. “We’d have a funeral service, and we’d go to the burial site and there was nobody there or no grave site ready.”

In 1993, Solomon Rooks bought the cemetery, which by that time had been reduced to blight. A Hillsdale trustee had told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1990 that Greenwood was a “haven for thieves” and “an eyesore for the entire community.” Rooks had been a leader of the St. Louis branch of the Congress of Racial Equality. In the late 1960s, he followed the group’s conservative ideological shift, becoming a proponent of Black Power capitalism and launching a series of business ventures; Greenwood Cemetery was to be among them.

Rooks, who said that his parents were buried in Greenwood, concocted a scheme for reviving the cemetery that itself was dependent on the neglect that black burial grounds had suffered. A St. Louis County judge had granted permission to a regional development corporation to dig up 12,000 bodies from another historically black cemetery, Washington Park, to make room for an expansion of the region’s MetroLink commuter train. Rooks was counting on winning a several-million-dollar bid to reinter those displaced bodies. The idea, according to a legal filing that he later submitted, was to “reinvest profits derived from the Washington Park removals back in the Black Community.”

But with its overgrown gravestones and impassable paths, Greenwood couldn’t win the bid. Rooks subsequently filed for bankruptcy, his unfulfilled promises doing little to dispel his image as a huckster. The cemetery fell even further into disrepair. The surrounding municipalities had little in the way of a remedy to offer: Velda Village Hills planned a fence to block residents’ view of the decay.

* * *

In the three-mile radius around Greenwood, there are at least nine other cemeteries. Apart from some occasional complaints about the upkeep, they are well groomed. Their maintenance is supported by more than burial revenue; St. Peter’s and other nearby cemeteries have for decades been building endowments, charging fees above the base rate for burials. These so-called perpetual-care funds provide the burial places with the resources to maintain the grounds—mowing lawns and clipping hedges—even if business slows or families stop visiting. The endowments are regulated by the state, and St. Peter’s now has a nearly $20 million fund.

“We never wanted anyone to regret that they chose this cemetery,” Baumgartner explains. “The endowment is high because we wanted to prove to everyone that we’re honorable.”

But Greenwood has no endowment, no collective trust to support the ongoing care of its graves. Around the United States, black cemeteries have had little tradition of establishing endowments, because black families cared for the graves themselves, and they often could not afford the fees. Then too, Greenwood had little incentive to promise perpetual care: Under segregation, black families had few options for burying their loved ones.

“This is a non-endowed cemetery,” reads a Greenwood grave deed from 1963, a notice required by state law. But few bereaved families realized the significance of those words or even gave them much thought; Greenwood was the place where their loved ones and friends had always been buried.

Cemetery experts note that perpetual-care funds are not a panacea. But while white cemeteries sometimes fail as well, utter decline has become almost a matter of course for black graves in formerly segregated cemeteries. “Black cemeteries in the United States, almost all of them lacked endowments,” Trinkley says. “Once burials stop, the cemeteries are likely to fall apart.”

Yet when white cemeteries decline, private wealth often comes to the rescue. In 1988, Bethany Cemetery, one of the white burial places in the vicinity of Greenwood, came under financial strain as the church that owned it saw its congregation shrink. St. Peter’s intervened, absorbing the assets and liabilities of its “sister cemetery,” Baumgartner says.

“It is the condition of wealth and race,” says Darrick Hamilton, an economist at the New School in New York City, “that wealth builds more wealth.” But on average, black households have a nickel for every dollar of assets and savings possessed by a white family. Without wealth, families fall behind, neighborhoods decline, and cities of the dead become overgrown forests.

* * *

When Daniels discovered Greenwood’s collapse, she began making plans. If Rooks’s for-profit fix had failed, she thought, a not-for-profit attempt might work. “I had to do something,” she recalls.

With a local pastor, several academic historians, and other Greenwood families, Daniels started a group called Friends of Greenwood, whose members complained to state officials. In late 1999, then–State Attorney General Jay Nixon (now Missouri’s governor) asked a judge to dissolve Rooks’s business. “The condition of Greenwood Cemetery is a disgrace that does not provide the dignity and respect due those who are buried there or their families,” Nixon said in a statement at the time.

In 2000, a judge turned Greenwood over to St. Louis County, which relieved itself of responsibility by signing the deed over to Friends of Greenwood. The state volunteered the National Guard to clear the broken-down cars and appliances that had been dumped in the back section. Friends of Greenwood applied for small grants and began to organize volunteer cleanup days, bringing people from school groups and local businesses to pull the brambles from gravestones. Speaking to the Post-Dispatch, the Rev. Nathaniel Griffin—pastor of the Greater Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church, which has been located on the southern edge of the cemetery since about 1910—said that “our objective is just to show the history of it. There will be no more burials.”

Friends of Greenwood was hoping that, over time, the group could raise enough money to build a historical park. As portions of the land slowly cleared, Daniels and several historians culled the cemetery records to build a case for Greenwood’s historical significance. One record in particular grabbed their attention: In 1876, two years after he began digging graves, the cemetery’s owner had buried Harriet Robinson Scott—who, with her husband, Dred Scott, had spent the better part of her adult life fighting in American courts over her status as a human. Historians had previously assumed that she’d been interred in the same place as Dred Scott: a Catholic cemetery that permitted burials for the slaves of Catholic men.

The discovery of Scott’s burial there helped secure Greenwood a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, a designation that Daniels hoped would help Friends of Greenwood raise the money to restore the land—about $700,000, the group guessed. The Dred Scott Foundation, run by his descendants, erected a stone in memory of Harriet Robinson Scott, and politicians proclaimed the cemetery’s importance.

“This is sacred ground; this is our history; this is us,” Missouri Representative William Lacy Clay Jr. said while attending a cleanup day in 2009. By then, a third of the grounds had been cleared. The front section of Greenwood, closest to Hillsdale, looked like a cemetery again, with the lawn mowed so neatly that even the beveled gravestones could be seen once more. “It’s going to take a little while to get it clean,” Daniels said in 2009, “but where we see the project going ultimately is to move Greenwood from its current status on the National Register of Historic Places to an actual national monument.”

* * *

This year, as in most years, the Missouri Legislature reapproved a law securing an endowment for the maintenance of the state’s Confederate memorial, which honors “the valor of the soldiers who served the Confederacy in the War between the States.” The state’s Department of Natural Resources is tasked with administering and maintaining the memorial park’s grounds. But while Greenwood Cemetery is listed on the National Register, no state or federal money is devoted to its upkeep; there is no ongoing public investment in the care of Harriet Robinson Scott’s grave.

The American landscape is scarred by these disproportions. In Richmond, Virginia, two nearby African-American cemeteries, East End and Evergreen, are obscured by creeping kudzu. The cemeteries are within view of Richmond’s city-owned Oakwood Cemetery, which holds the remains of an estimated 17,000 Confederate soldiers. Brian Palmer, a journalist, is working on a film that follows a group of local volunteers who hope to reclaim East End. He learned that the gulf between the neglect in East End and the meticulous perpetual care in Oakwood is supported by contemporary public policy: The state government allocates funds to the Daughters of the Confederacy, a private group, to provide for the maintenance of Confederate soldiers’ graves in Oakwood and dozens of other state cemeteries.

“It is deeply devastating, sitting in the middle of East End Cemetery, surrounded by poison ivy and brambles, to know that that inequality is still directly connected to an official funding structure,” Palmer observes. Dozens of volunteers spend days pulling growth off the headstones of some of Richmond’s most prominent historical figures, “disregarded because they are black,” he says. Their work often pales against nature’s unyielding crawl.

The stories emerge nearly everywhere. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, under the leaves and brush in the overgrown Pleasant Garden Cemetery, are the gravestones of Andrew and Leroy Wright—two of the Scottsboro Boys—and Ed Johnson, who was lynched by a white mob in 1906 the night after the Supreme Court placed a stay on his execution over rape charges—three more victims of American racial terrorism, disappeared.

Across the South, countless small black family and church cemeteries have been left without care for several generations. As black Southerners fled the threat of racial violence in the early 1900s, grave sites were left with no one to care for them. Yet, not long after they began to decline, small attempts at reclamation were made. “This neglect is staggering. As far as I can see, there is nothing but bushes and weeds, some as tall as my waist,” Alice Walker wrote in a 1975 essay about her search for the forgotten Florida burial site of Zora Neale Hurston. Walker found herself lost, until she stumbled into an indentation in the ground in the chaotic cemetery. It was Hurston’s grave, unmarked. Walker purchased a headstone.

* * *

Progress in Greenwood has come in waves over the past 15 years, but the tall grass returns, and cleared sections are once again overgrown. Friends of Greenwood never came close to raising the hundreds of thousands of dollars that Daniels estimates would be required for consistent care, and volunteers come and go. Charlie Jordan and a white teacher named Charlie Kennedy, who taught Mike Brown and kids from Hillsdale, spent some $20,000 of their own money on lawn mowers. But in 2013, Jordan suffered a stroke. He can no longer travel to the cemetery on Saturdays.

New families of the dead come forward to clear portions of the grounds. But the volunteer labor isn’t enough, and complaints of mismanagement have begun again. “You can see washers, dryers, tires…. They’ve made it into a dumping ground instead of hallowed ground,” a woman with relatives buried in Greenwood told the local news in July. Greenwood narrowly avoided being auctioned off that month over unpaid property taxes. Daniels managed to raise the $800 owed.

In recent years, though, her health has been shaky, and her bushwhacking trips deep into the cemetery have slowed. But she still ventures into the tamer sections, and at least a few times each week, she’ll respond to requests on Facebook from curious Greenwood relatives, posting burial information and photos of gravestones that she’s shot over the last 15 years. “My Grandfather is buried in Greenwood. We have not been able to find his headstone in years. What’s the status of the middle and back sections of the cemetery?” asked Reggie Jones, the mayor of Dellwood, a nearby North County municipality, in a June Facebook post.

“Very bad and at this point there appear to be only two solutions,” Daniels replied. “1) Families step up to the plate and ensure that their ancestors’ gravesites are cared for or 2) An enormous amount of money…becomes available to clear, clean and restore the cemetery.”

On occasion, Daniels still goes searching for stones. When Barbara Harris called to ask for help finding her great-grandmother’s grave, Daniels told her that nobody had cleared that section for 30 years, but agreed to meet nonetheless. As they pushed their way through the growth at the edge of the cemetery, Daniels let out a gasp. “I fell over your grandmother!” she exclaimed. Her small headstone, partially covered in green moss, was just as Harris had remembered it, inscribed with her name and the words “Dear Grandmother.”

“I was actually able to find the headstone we were looking for,” Daniels wrote later. “Actually, I didn’t find it—it found me.”

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