In late February, Raphael Morris pulled his car onto the gravel path just off St. Louis Avenue in northern St. Louis County, and saw something he’d hoped was a thing of the past: a large pile of garbage dumped in Greenwood Cemetery, near where he grew up and where several family members are buried. Morris is president of the Greenwood Cemetery Preservation Association and has been working to restore the African-American cemetery that dates back to the Reconstruction era. A day later, the worn mattresses and rusted exercise bike were just another trouble spot across Greenwood’s 32 acres. The dozen or so acres visible from the road are well maintained, even manicured; but further down the hilly sloping site, the landscape loses focus, growing ragged, almost feral, the headstones crumbling into the earth as nature reasserts itself. Here the cemetery is so overgrown that it’s largely inaccessible.
“My emotions are always like this … ,” Morris tells me, motioning with his hand up and down, a rollercoaster of hope at seeing this jewel of St. Louis history being slowly repaired, and despair at realizing how much remains to be done. In the rear section of the cemetery, we see wood planks, innumerable plastic bags and bottles, a TV, and a black wig partially ground into the dirt. We see a lot of tires, too, but Morris and Etta Daniels, the preservation association’s historian, have plans for these: they’ll incorporate them into the landscape as flower planters. Neither of them, both well into retirement age, have ever caught anyone dumping there. “I’m so glad,” says Daniels, who is lithe, self-assured, stern when there’s a point to be made. “I’d be in jail.”
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Greenwood Cemetery is today a testament to hard work and sweat equity. Daniels, who has a master’s in history from University of Missouri, has devoted years to retrieving burial documents and piecing together a database. She has pulled death certificates from the St. Louis Public Library and the Missouri Secretary of State’s office. She’s reached out to local funeral homes, and asked community members to bring her newspaper obituaries to fill in the gaps. Her current records list the names of 36,000 buried at Greenwood (out of an estimated 50,000) and she’s spent many hours on the site, matching physical headstones to archival data. 1 Every branch carted off the cemetery, every burial marker documented, reflects the dedication of the non-profit association and the volunteer energy of area organizations. St. Louis University and Washington University have fielded teams to pull weeds, mow grass, and clear brush; corporations including Monsanto and the state power company Ameren have pitched in too. One estimate for basic restoration of the entire cemetery was $500,000, but that was ten years ago. Now Morris thinks the cost would be several million.
Ultimately the struggle to restore Greenwood is about more than the fate of a cemetery that saw its last burial more than two decades ago. Founded in 1874, Greenwood was the first commercial, non-sectarian African-American cemetery in St. Louis. It was established by a German emigrant, Herman Krueger, who anticipated that recently emancipated African Americans and their families were, in effect, a new and growing market for dignified and decent burial. Krueger proved to be a shrewd businessman, and for almost a century Greenwood prospered. One of its earliest and most illustrious burials was the former slave Harriet Robinson Scott, who along with her husband, Dred Scott, petitioned the U.S. courts for freedom (the infamous Supreme Court decision that denied their appeal is widely reviled as among the worst in its history). Charlton Hunt Tandy, a Civil War veteran and lawyer who became a leading advocate for desegregation in the Jim Crow era, is also buried at Greenwood (the 1896 decision that established the “separate but equal” doctrine is another black mark on the high court’s record). Greenwood’s most famous presence is Lee Shelton, a pimp, hustler, and local icon who sported an ebony cane, gold rings, Stetson hat, and .44 Smith and Wesson, and who’s been immortalized in the much-covered ballad “Stagger Lee.” Later burials include the blues singer and pianist Walter Davis and jazz guitarist Grant Green.
The racism and inequality that plague African Americans in life are perpetuated in death.
Greenwood was operated by members of the Krueger family for more than a century. By the time they sold the cemetery to a local entrepreneur, in 1979, business was slowing, and throughout the 1980s and ’90s, as burials became fewer and income dried up, the site began to decline. According to Etta Daniels, there was little to no maintenance in those years; hand-etched, moss-covered gravestones that date to the presidency of Woodrow Wilson were in rough shape, but so were the machine-chiseled headstones from the Reagan era. The new owner had banked on winning a contract to re-inter the bodies from another struggling African-American cemetery: in the mid ’90s Washington Park Cemetery was partially dug up to make way for a new light rail to Lambert International Airport. That deal fell through, the owner of Greenwood went bankrupt, and in 2000 St. Louis County took over the derelict site. A couple of years later the newly formed non-profit preservation association took control, and began the unending battle against weeds and debris, decay and neglect.
Morris and Daniels see Greenwood as a microcosm of African-American life in St. Louis, from Reconstruction to today. “This is a powerful place in terms of what it can offer the community,” says Daniels. She describes their tenacious efforts as the “remedying of an injustice,” and in this light the fight to save Greenwood is best understood as part of the larger social and economic struggles that have long shaped black life in St. Louis and beyond. The cemetery is located in Hillsdale, a struggling suburb just outside the city limits that in recent decades has gotten poorer and more segregated as white residents moved away. Today the population is more than 90 percent African American; the median income is just $23,000, half that of the St. Louis region; and the average home value only $51,000. It’s a neighborhood of brick bungalows and shuttered stores, with a scattering of foreclosures. It’s just a few miles from Ferguson, where in the summer of 2014 the shooting of Michael Brown by local police sparked the first Black Lives Matter protests. (Brown is buried in nearby St. Peter’s Cemetery.) 2
I was drawn to Greenwood because of its history. It’s a history that’s too little known, even locally: my mother-in-law (who is white) grew up not far from the cemetery, but never heard of the place. It’s a history that reflects the fact that the racism and inequality that plague African Americans in life are perpetuated in death. And it’s a history that epitomizes what has become nothing less than a preservation crisis for black burial grounds across the country.
One confounding measure of the problem is that we don’t even know its full measure; these cultural and archaeological treasure troves have received little attention from their communities or from historians or preservationists. Michael Trinkley, director of the Chicora Foundation, a non-profit conservation and preservation organization based in Columbia, South Carolina, estimates that at least one-third of African-American burial sites are neglected. Chicora is working to address this problem; recent projects range from a significant survey of burial sites in South Carolina to a manual on “cemetery disaster planning.” 3 But all the usual preservation problems — how to bring new interest and resources to aging and overlooked artifacts — are made profoundly more complicated by the two-century history of slavery in the United States. On the website of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, public historian Nadia Orton recently posted these reflections:
African-American cemeteries have been abandoned for the same reasons as many other historic cemeteries, including severed family connections coupled with a lack of provision for long-term maintenance. As a cemetery fills up, profits decrease, and it becomes too expensive to maintain. Overgrowth sets in, and the cemetery becomes impassable. Gravestones are broken by tree roots or covered by bushes, leaves, and tree limbs. But other causes are specific to African-American burial grounds and cemeteries — the ramifications of slavery and of the structural racism that persists in the United States.
The preservation of 18th- and early 19th-century slave cemeteries poses particularly complex challenges. Because slaves were forbidden to read or write, gravestones were usually not inscribed with names; in some cases, graves were marked with beloved household objects, in others with plantings like yucca or periwinkle. In the antebellum south, slaves were typically buried in communal plots, often on the grounds of plantations and sometimes in clearings in dense forests, which offered necessary seclusion during an era when any visible gathering of blacks might easily have aroused suspicion and led to violence and lynching. There’s a painting by John Antrobus, an English artist who settled in Louisiana in the years before the Civil War, that illustrates this kind of furtive grief. In “A Plantation Burial,” Antrobus depicts the forest as a cave: a dark, intimate and sheltering space where African-American mourners are gathered around a wood coffin. A preacher raises his hands over his head; a few white observers peer in, on the edge of the ceremony.
Such practices obscure the historical record and make for especially intricate archaeological puzzles, and the effort to create a national survey of slave cemeteries has only just begun. The Periwinkle Initiative, founded recently by Sandra Arnold, a graduate fellow at Brown University who is studying the history of slavery, is working to create an open-source National Burial Database of Enslaved Americans. So far, Arnold has gathered information on approximately 450 cemeteries and 12,000 gravesites, and issued a report that includes preservation case studies and a list of documented sites. Arnold makes a compelling and poignant case for the historical and cultural importance of the project:
Standard measures for tracing family histories and life in the United States do not account for the lived experience of people of color. Unlike even the poorest whites, enslaved Americans were not guaranteed marriage licenses, or birth and death certificates by the state. Therefore, their gravesites stand as material testaments to the hundreds of thousands of individuals who lived and died during and after slavery. 4
One of the notable material testaments of recent years is the African Burial Ground National Monument, in Lower Manhattan, just a block from City Hall. Dedicated in 2007, the six-acre memorial site contains the remains of several hundred Americans of African descent buried in the colonial-era “Negroes Burial Ground.” The discovery of the skeletal remains was unexpected: archeologists found the old mass grave, estimated to contain thousands of burials, while doing a routine environmental study in preparation for construction of a federal office building. The creation of the national monument was the result of years of sustained protest from black scholars and activists who lobbied Congress to modify the design of the building in order to create a proper memorial. The anthropologist Michael Blakey, who served as scientific director of the excavation, has thought hard about how to apply issues of cultural ownership to the cemeteries of people who were slaves; to come up with ways to give the deceased a voice. He settled on the idea of the “descendant community”: a group of people with a cultural or kinship connection to the enslaved, who should be put on equal footing with other recognized stakeholders, like property owners or local governments. (In the case of the African Burial Ground, the descendant community is any African American who cares about it.) But as Blakey knows, all too often these descendant communities are not welcome participants in conversations about the future of burial sites. “A problem for African-American cemeteries,” Blakey told me, “is that we still live in a society that is significantly white supremacist, not only in its beliefs, but in the structure of its privileges.” 5
“Grand social and metaphysical ideas”
Although structural racism is a fundamental factor in its current plight, Greenwood Cemetery is rooted in a very different history of burial design than were the slave gravesites. Greenwood was created at the height of the “rural cemetery” movement that had started decades earlier, with the opening of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1831. Influenced by the British landscape tradition, and also by rising standards of public health, the movement transformed American burial practices. No longer did we bury our dead in crowded churchyards or family plots or potter’s fields; the new places for interment and remembrance would be artfully landscaped parks located outside populous and unsanitary city centers. (And although Mount Auburn was established as a nonprofit, the rural cemeteries were often as not, like Greenwood, operated as commercial enterprises.) The designer of Mount Auburn, Henry Dearborn, studied English gardens and created a green park with gentle paths that wind through stands of oaks, beeches, willows, and pines; with rolling hills and valleys that alternately reveal and conceal vistas for Sunday visitors strolling amongst the dead on a warm spring afternoon. It is a burial ground designed with the rigor and care of any major piece of civic infrastructure, and by the mid-19th century Mount Auburn was the top tourist attraction in Boston. The overgrown meandering paths and shaggy trails that criss-cross Greenwood underscore the influence of this famous design.
Greenwood Cemetery has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2004, and in 2015 the Missouri Alliance for Historic Preservation included the site as one of its “Places in Peril.” Etta Daniels and Raphael Morris are preparing guided and unguided tours, and more and more people are finding their way to the place. (Not long ago an author working on a book on the blues came from Finland to visit the gravesite of Grant Green.) And there are other post-Civil War African-American cemeteries that are attracting recognition. Randolph Cemetery, in Columbia, South Carolina, was built in 1871 and named after Benjamin Franklin Randolph, a veteran of the Union Army who became one of the first African Americans elected to the state senate and who was later assassinated by the Ku Klux Klan. Like Greenwood, Randolph Cemetery is listed on the National Register. So is Mount Auburn Cemetery, in Baltimore, founded in 1872 and once called “the city of the dead for colored people.” 6
Black cemeteries are attached to impoverished communities; the perpetual care funds that so often support white cemeteries simply aren’t available.
But at none of these historic African-American cemeteries have official designations and increasing social awareness translated into sustained resources or stable funding. And the challenges are indeed formidable. On a practical level, these burial landscapes must grapple with the material decay and formal disorganization causes by lack of maintenance. But the thornier challenges are cultural. Before a cemetery can be restored, all the assorted stakeholders — preservationists, archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, community members, descendants of the deceased — must determine that it is worthy of restoration in the first place. Should a cemetery be saved because of its age? Because it served a spectrum of the black community, from barbers to businessmen? Because its plots are filled with notable historical figures, as at Greenwood? These questions are further complicated by the fact that the descendant communities are often impoverished. African-American cemeteries are attached to communities that have been redlined and segregated out of billions of dollars of wealth that could have been passed down through the generations, and the usual perpetual care funds that are replenished regularly in burial businesses that cater to whites simply aren’t available at Greenwood or Randolph or Baltimore’s Mt. Auburn.
What’s more, for cemeteries like Randolph, in the deep south, the Great Migration of blacks to northern cities dispersed the descendant communities and weakened ties to their ancestral burial places. Which makes it all the more critical, and all the more difficult, to establish some kind of endowment, as Morris and Daniels hope to do. “It really does no good to clean up a cemetery if you have no process in place to maintain it,” says Michael Trinkley, of Chicora. If you can’t set up a permanent endowment, “then the cemetery is probably best being left alone.” But of course it is notoriously difficult to build an endowment; and given that today’s donor classes tend to gravitate toward high-visibility projects that trumpet their philanthropic pursuits, it’s particularly challenging for hyper-local bastions of community and culture like the African-American cemeteries.
So far Randolph Cemetery is the closest to a success story that these landscapes have seen. By the mid-20th century, the burial site, with all its revenue-generating plots long since occupied, had deteriorated into a weedy wilderness. In the late 1970s, local leaders formed the Committee for the Restoration and Beautification of Randolph Cemetery, and set to work restoring and beautifying. A decade ago the group achieved a major victory, when in 2006 the South Carolina legislature approved half a million dollars for the effort. Over the next several years, the cemetery was cleared and cleaned, graves were documented, and the committee managed to raise another $100,000. But landscape maintenance is never-ending — each time the grass is cut on the five-acre site, it costs $1,100 — and today just a small percent of the original funding remains, with no new money coming in. The committee treasurer, Staci Richey, told me they are planning to rehabilitate a nearby donated house, built in 1872 for freed slaves, into a rental property. “I see my role as attempting to find a sustainable way to maintain the cemetery financially,” she said. 7
Raising an endowment that will relieve the anxiety of lawnmower bills is also the top priority at Baltimore’s Mount Auburn, which is now the property of a local church. Already volunteer researchers, working in association with the Maryland State Archives, have identified and documented 50,000 burials (out of an estimated 55,000 total); a few years ago the state enlisted prison inmates to clean the 34-acre site, contributing hundreds of thousands of hours of labor. “This year,” says Jeanne Hitchcock, chair of the cemetery’s board of directors, “we’re going to try to get ourselves beyond the struggle of keeping the grass cut.” She’s currently weighing business plans to attract or leverage private capital to restore the cemetery that is the resting place for the city’s civil rights pioneers and early black professionals. 8
One way to leverage private capital would be for the city to require a locally iconic corporation like Under Armour to underwrite the restoration of Mount Auburn in return for developing a new headquarters financed by tax breaks and government subsidies. Such linkages have long been standard municipal practice; think of the successful “percent for art” programs that allow cities to fund public art by exacting fees, typically one percent of the overall cost, from large-scale urban development projects. And few would deny that cemeteries hold immense cultural value. As Keith Eggener writes in an article in this journal:
On one level, cemeteries are about the pasts we bury in them. But on another, they are inherently future-oriented. Memorials are nothing if not directed at those who will look upon them and be called to remember. They also speak of the hopes of the deceased. Because cemeteries are such patently liminal sites — poised between past and future, life and death, material and spiritual, earth and heaven — they more than any other designed landscapes communicate grand social and metaphysical ideas. They offer summations of lives lived and speak of community, the connection to place, mortality, afterlife, and eternity.
But grand social and metaphysical ideas do not seem to have much traction in these market-centric times, and it’s unlikely that this sort of public largesse will be applied to the inactive and insolvent burial sites of black Americans. A cemetery with no more room to bury the dead has committed the cardinal sin of neoliberal economics: its value cannot be easily quantified, and it doesn’t make money.
Can we imagine a new federal art project that would preserve valuable cultural patrimony, including the irreplaceable memorial artifacts in cemeteries?
Yet it’s worth remembering that one of the most successful government programs in U.S. history was the Works Progress Administration. Created by the Roosevelt administration in the thick of the Great Depression to put jobless Americans to work, the WPA employed more than eight million people and funded a phenomenal range of projects that developed and preserved valuable national resources, both cultural and natural. The Civilian Conservation Corps planted more than three billion trees and created or improved over 800 public parks. The Federal Music Project funded the transcription and recording of folk music of all types: sea shanties, Quaker hymns, African American spirituals. The Federal Art Project started more than 100 community art centers, including the first African American art center in the country, on the South Side of Chicago. 9 These are just a few of the thousands of successful projects sponsored by the federal government over almost a decade.
Can we envision a contemporary public program that would endeavor to restore the nation’s cultural landscapes and at the same time provide decent employment for miners and machinists who’ve lost their jobs to automation and globalization? Can we imagine a new federal art project that would focus on preserving valuable cultural patrimony, including the irreplaceable memorial artifacts in cemeteries? Can we imagine a new conservation corps that would continue the restoration of Mount Auburn that was begun by the prison inmates? And that would work alongside Raphael Morris and Etta Daniels at Greenwood? Burial grounds are nothing less than vital repositories of information that can tell us much about our local and national history, argues Michael Trinkley. “The problem is that we have to care about learning,” he says. Increasingly, society is concerned only about making money.” 10
“Relevant over time”
It’s hard to think of a cultural landscape type that’s as stubbornly resistant to restoration as a neglected African-American cemetery. For even beyond the daunting practical and financial obstacles, there’s another significant challenge. What does restoration of these landscapes look like? What are the programmatic possibilities for cemeteries that no longer function as active burial sites? What are the opportunities for reinterpretation and redesign?
These are the expansive questions that brought Greenwood Cemetery to the attention of Azzurra Cox. Cox first learned about the St. Louis cemetery a few years ago from a journalist who was writing a story about African-American burial places, including Greenwood. Last summer, with a new degree in landscape architecture from Harvard, and a scholarship from the Landscape Architecture Foundation, Cox arrived at Greenwood, eager to work with the preservation association and explore ways to restore and renovate the site. Though she’d already studied plans, diagrams, and aerial photos, and done archival research, she was amazed by what she found. “We have probably the most historically significant black cemetery in the St. Louis area, and so many people here don’t even know about it,” she says.
Cox knows she’s an outsider with far less at stake than Raphael Morris and Etta Daniels and all the neighbors who’ve been pulling weeds from their grandparents’ graves for years. And because of that, she’s been careful to explain that her vision for the cemetery— which runs opposite to the local instinct to thoroughly clear the overgrowth — is to leave much of what’s there intact, “to edit and work with it,” she says. She understands that Greenwood’s decline is rooted in the structural racism that has long limited the accumulation of black wealth and agency, and argues that this history should be reflected in its restoration. As Cox sees it, “restoration is not about going back to what the cemetery looked like in 1874. It’s about seeing what’s happened since then and working with that, and trying to have the site speak to its many legacies.”
You can imagine parts of Greenwood being restored to create a series of outdoor rooms, with enough space for a sculpture installation.
Cox envisions a series of hybrid landscapes that would allow Greenwood to stay “relevant over time.” In her proposal, a rear section of the cemetery that would serve as a new public entrance (and has already been largely trimmed back) would become an orchard, or a field for growing food — some active use that would draw in visitors. The main section would be a prairie landscape; further back, the wilder parts would remain forested. It’s a compelling idea, for even at the end of a Midwestern winter, these rear sections of Greenwood retain something of a Southern Gothic vibe, with vines blending into trees to create enclosed pathways. During warmer seasons, the black walnut trees shade the paths, the birds sing, and you forget you’re in the midst of a fading inner-ring suburb. These are the wildest, most unkempt parts of the cemetery, but also the most sublime. (Etta Daniels uses a photo of this area as her computer screen saver.) You can imagine these parts of Greenwood being restored to create a series of outdoor rooms, with enough space for a sculpture installation. Or a funeral procession — and then you’re right back in the haunting scene from “A Plantation Burial.”
In Cox’s plans, Greenwood Cemetery would become a mix of memorial park and outdoor history museum, showcasing the various landscape types that have grown up on the site and been maintained by dedicated volunteers. It’s a vision in which landscape design itself becomes a crucial part of the preservation strategy — a way to plan and depict a vital future for Greenwood and all the other now forlorn African-American burial sites.
It’s a vision in which landscape design itself becomes a crucial part of the preservation strategy.
Whether this optimistic vision will ever become built reality remains uncertain. Cox recently started a new job with a landscape firm in Seattle, and hopes to travel to St. Louis monthly to continue her work at Greenwood. She understands that projects like this are a long haul, requiring countless community meetings, endless bureaucratic approvals, boundless stamina. And when her $25,000 scholarship runs out, she’ll need to dedicate her own resources to the project, to join up with Morris and Daniels and the Greenwood Cemetery Preservation Association in its ceaseless pro bono, grant-hunting efforts. In this light Cox’s exemplary work is as much an illustration of the problem as a potential solution. Energetic young designers with time-limited foundation grants are just a start. A sustainable future for Greenwood and the many neglected African-American cemeteries will require a much larger commitment, a public and collective commitment, to the ongoing importance of their history.