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.