Historically, black people in the United States haven't been treated properly during their lives. In fact, they've had their lives taken from them in far too many unjust ways. And what about how their bodies are treated after death? Let's look into the history of black graves and discuss why black lives matter, even after they are gone from this earth - regardless of how they got there.
The Tulsa Race Massacre and its murderous mass graves
This is a tough topic to talk about, but this is why we need to talk about it. Just like the topics of death, murder, and dead bodies in general, the graves of black people are possibly considered taboo to bring up. I certainly haven't heard anyone talk about it at length. The HBO series, Watchmen, apparently opens with a scene depicting this event, but if you haven't seen that series, you wouldn't know (much like I don't). However, I recently watched an episode of Murder, Mystery, and Makeup Monday by Bailey Sarian on YouTube (big shout out to her content if you haven't checked it out already! She just hit 1 million subscribers, so she's doing something right, and she seems so down to earth). The video came out during this time in 2020 where attention is being focused on the #BLM movement. Black Lives Matter should be covered all the time, but I digress.
Bailey Sarian's video was centered around an incident that is rarely covered in history classes, textbooks, or even articles online: The Tulsa Race Massacre. It was 1921, and Oklahoma was segregated as ever. The town of Greenwood was where the white people chose to delegate the black people of the town to start what would be known as "Black Wall Street". The black community was not welcomed, to put it lightly, when attempting to start businesses, open bank accounts, and other things that would help them flourish and live as humans. So they started their own community in Greenwood with doctors, dentists, banks, and so on. It was flourishing.
Then, a white woman and a black man got into an elevator together. Minutes later, a piercing scream erupted from the woman's mouth, and Dick Rowland was seen fleeing the scene. I imagine he did this not because he was guilty, but because he knew that he would be seen as guilty regardless. This did, in fact, occur, and the town accused and arrested Dick Rowland under the suspicion of sexually assaulting this woman. This was highly suspect from the start, and the case was later dismissed. However, the black people of Tulsa and the surrounding Oklahoma neighborhoods feared for Mr. Rowland's life. There was hubbub going around that he would be lynched for his "crimes", and they would not stand by and let that happen. So the outrage began.
If you've read this far, I applaud you. And you're probably wondering why I'm talking about this case on a blog about death and graves. Well, that's due to the estimated 10,000 black citizens left homeless, 40 blocks set ablaze by white people, and upwards of 300 murders of the same black community. This death toll is not official, as it, ridiculously, wasn't recorded by authorities. This is the number estimated by witnesses of these undocumented murders.
"A white mob attacked the prosperous black business district of Greenwood in 1921, leaving as many as 300 people dead, and their homes and businesses burned to the ground." (Greenwood Cultural Center) via The Washington Post
This is one of many race riots that have occurred in the United States over the years, and its impacts were devastating. I want to go into all the details of how they weren't allowed to even rebuild, because this enrages me. Check out Bailey's video for a more in-depth coverage of this ridiculously tragic incident. For now, let's focus on what we came here to talk about: graves.
All of those innocent black people were killed mercilessly. Where were they buried? We can assume that this was also done mercilessly. In fact, it has been long-rumored that there are huge trenches in which the bodies were dumped. This was corroborated by survivors of the incident reporting seeing these bodies being dumped in mass graves. And in 2019, we finally started looking for them.
"On Monday, scientists and forensic anthropologists armed with ground-penetrating radar combed the grounds of Tulsa’s Oaklawn Cemetery, looking for anomalies that might be consistent with mass graves.
The cemetery, which is owned by the city, is just a few blocks from what is known as Black Wall Street. It is also the site where, in 1999, renowned forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow led a team of scientists who discovered an anomaly bearing “all the characteristics of a dug pit or trench with vertical walls and an undefined object within the approximate center of the feature,” the Tulsa Race Riot Commission concluded in its 2001 report.
Along with testimony from a witness of the massacre, the report said, “this trench-like feature takes on the properties of a mass grave.” The commission recommended excavation, but the city decided not to dig for physical evidence." - The Washington Post
Thankfully, in 2019 (although much too late), the Mayor announced that they would now allow digging in the site because it was dubbed, and rightly so, a murder investigation. None of the white people involved in this mass murder were ever punished for any of their crimes committed. The least we can do this many years later is locate the bodies of the victims and give them proper remembrance. That obviously brings into question if it's worth it to do so long after their souls have left this earth. One of the last-known surviving victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre recently passed, so there would likely not be many surviving family members to physically appreciate this effort. But maybe these people live on because they live in our memories, and simply talking about them now and looking into their unjust deaths is a form of living they deserve to experience, even if not physically.
As the 100th anniversary of the deadly event draws near, the investigation is still underway. They have been using ground-penetrating radar to identify spots that present as mass grave sites, but they have not begun digging as far as I can tell. Hopefully 100 years gave them enough time to gather the supplies. One commenter describes hearsay of how they're digging in the wrong areas, and that they have heard that bodies are buried underneath where houses and buildings were rebuilt after the white people unjustly claimed the land they destroyed.
Bodies under buildings, in grassy fields, unmarked
Even when a race riot wasn't the cause of black deaths, their community still struggled with proper burial options. This is due to many things, but mainly the economic issues the community faced as a result of how white people set things up to benefit, well, white people. This, in turn, left little option for black people to bury their loved ones, and they turned to "poor" cemeteries to do so. These cemeteries weren't given the same treatment as, say, Highgate Cemetery in the UK where famous people like Karl Marx reside after death and you have to pay an entrance fee to get in. They weren't even given the same treatment as the old cemetery down the road for middle-class citizens.
No, these poor cemeteries were taken care of poorly, and at times, built over top of.
Steve: "You son of a bitch. You moved the cemetery, but you left the bodies, didn't you? You son of a bitch, you left the bodies and you only moved the headstones. You only moved the headstones. Why? Why?" - Poltergeist (1982)
King High School in Tampa, Florida recently discovered that their school property was home to an estimated 260 graves, 145 of which have been detected.
While there's evidence of the deaths being properly recorded, this doesn't explain why they are unmarked and the school was (allegedly) not aware of their existence before moving onto the property in 1960. The majority of the bodies thought to be buried there are those of black citizens. Why was this cemetery so forgotten that students congregated above it for decades before anyone noticed?
This is likely due to the long-standing issue of black cemeteries being neglected. They are either forgotten about in overgrown parts of the forest, or they have a preservation committee that has little funds to do anything about the trash and defamation that citizens impose on the people buried there and coming to visit. Sometimes, even, the bodies are re-interred, or basically moved to a different location, with little done to stop them. In Beaufort, SC, a historic African-American graveyard had the headstones razed, with no adverse action taken against the development company that did this unjust act.
This is just scratching the surface.
History of Black burial practices
While researching African cultural practices for burials is a daunting task, there is enough evidence to say that black ancestors certainly wouldn't have wanted it this way. We also have little evidence of African-American slave burials or common practices, as the white owners would usually push back against any religious practices or traditions among their slaves. Although their deaths are barely documented, these black slaves died by the thousands. They perished at a much higher rate and at much younger ages than other races.
"Even on more interior cotton plantations it is likely that nearly one out of every three slave children died before adulthood. Death was certainly a way of life for African-American slaves and they had ample opportunities to make the trip from slave settlement to cemetery for their friends and family." - Sciway.net, Grave Matters
From what we can tell from the scarce accounts of plantation owners that cared enough to detail slave burials in their journals, most of these happened at night. This is thought to have been practiced in order to prevent other slaves from other plantations to attend, or it could have been due to the "availability" or, rather, lack of intention to ever do it during the daytime which was reserved for white people. Even so, the black slaves would often be singing and praying early into the morning, oftentimes from Sunday night into the Monday morning of the funeral service.
John Antrobus, “A Plantation Burial,” 1860. [The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1960.46]
Despite their efforts to make this a celebratory, honoring occasion, the depictions (and remnants) of black grave sites are few and far between. The idea of slaves honoring the dead in a traditional way was looked down upon. Do you think this has any implication for the way that black cemeteries are treated today? What about the black lives that were lost in the Tulsa Race Massacre? Does history repeat itself in more subtle, yet just as detrimental, ways? I think it does. And it's time we start paying attention.