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Climate Change and Black Cemeteries

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As the blogosphere’s preeminent grave expert (what a position to hold in society), I’ve talked before about the neglect of Black cemeteries and how racism follows us beyond the grave.

This explores another facet of the issue, talking about how climate change impacts Black cemeteries disproportionately, erasing parts of the Black past while the white past is much more protected.

There is a growing body of evidence that suggests hurricanes and tropical storms are becoming more intense. Warmer oceans, largely a result of human activity, contribute to storms with stronger winds and heavier rainfall. Fifteen years ago, Hurricane Katrina became a major disaster that put this country’s race and class divides in plain view for the world to see. Since the storm, preservationists have lamented the loss of physical and cultural history in New Orleans and throughout the Gulf Coast. For historians and culture workers, Katrina signaled the importance of climate and class in preservation efforts. Hurricanes Ike and Harvey further solidified the urgency of an analysis of class, climate change, and preservation. Communities across the Gulf Coast realized that Black American cemeteries were crumbling, and the continued displacement of poor Black Americans as a result of flooding was a hindrance to solving this problem. 

Take, for instance, acclaimed bluesman Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. Gatemouth Brown was a Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist born in Vinton, Louisiana. He was raised in Orange, Texas, and he began his career with Don Robey’s Peacock Records, a Houston-based label that was crucial to the development of rhythm-and-blues and gospel music in the 1950s-1970s. Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home. Although he survived the storm, he passed away shortly after it, and he was buried in Hollywood Cemetery (established in 1875) in Orange. Hurricane Rita came through right after he died, and it carried away the small temporary marker on his grave. When Hurricane Ike hit the Gulf Coast in September 2008, floodwaters damaged Hollywood Cemetery, and Gatemouth’s casket floated away from his grave. Luckily, his estate was able to recover his casket and repair his gravesite, but many families were not so fortunate. When Hurricane Harvey made landfall in 2017, Hollywood Cemetery, caskets were unearthed again.

In late May 2015, a cyclist was startled to come upon a casket on the side of a trail after a foot of rain inundated the Houston area in the historic Memorial Day Flood. The casket had been buried in nearby Riceville Cemetery in 2007, which was established in 1889. Despite what some may believe, not all historic Black cemeteries are neglected. They are still in use, but more frequent flooding is a concern for the families that care for them.

In Houston, several historic Black cemeteries are in danger from the combined effects of flooding and gentrification. Olivewood Cemetery (1875) and College Park Memorial Cemetery (1896) are the resting places for many Black Houston pioneers. Pleasant Green-Culbertson Cemetery, Harrisburg-Jackson Cemetery (which is actually two adjacent cemeteries whose boundaries are now unknown), was in use from the 1800s to the 1950s. Evergreen Negro Cemetery, established in the 1880s, is the resting place for several Buffalo Soldiers and World War I veterans. It fell out of use in the 1950s, and in 1960, the city removed nearly 500 graves to run Lockwood Drive right through the center of the graveyard. While there are local efforts to preserve and revitalize these cemeteries, the constant flooding in recent years has posed a challenge. Digging deeper into the history of Black American gravesites, one realizes that class directly connects to a community’s ability to advocate for preservation. The violence of the Jim Crow Era, the use of eminent domain to run highways through Black communities, and general disinvestment in historically Black inner cities in the 1970s through the 1990s left many cemeteries abandoned.

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