The favored method used to obviate the burial of African Americans in many cemeteries across the country was the racially restrictive commitment, a stratagem that emerged from the Jim Crow epoch in 1876 to prevent the “mixing of the races.” These restrictive covenants, which stated that cemeteries were “limited to the Caucasian Race,” proved to be particularly effective for segregationists as both state and federal courts testified the rights of cemeteries to determine who could, and could not, own rights of burial.

 

Racial segregation is the practice of restricting people to certain circumscribed areas of residence or to separate facilities on the basis of race or alleged race. This is precisely what Greenwood Cemetery in Waco, Texas was ‘celebrating.’.

The cemetery had been racially segregated since its inception in the late 1800s. It was operated by two sets of janitors, white and black, until the city took over the cemetery about 10 years ago.

When we recall Martin Luther King’s relentless fight against racism, there is meagre information written about segregated cemeteries. Prior to King’s civil rights activities of the 1950’s and 1960’s, segregation was formidably entrenched as an accepted practice in American cemeteries.

The favored method used to obviate the burial of African Americans in many cemeteries across the country was the racially restrictive commitment, a stratagem that emerged from the Jim Crow epoch in 1876 to prevent the “mixing of the races.” These restrictive covenants, which stated that cemeteries were “limited to the Caucasian Race,” proved to be particularly effective for segregationists as both state and federal courts testified the rights of cemeteries to determine who could, and could not, own rights of burial. Until the 1950s, about 90 percent of all public burial grounds in the U.S. involved a variety of racial restrictions.

It is not only in Waco that a ‘racist’ fence separated the “black side” from the “white side” at the Greenwood cemetery, but also the Normanna Cemetery Association. The burial ground north of Corpus Christi in Texas, was sued by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund for prohibiting a white woman from burying the last embers of her Hispanic husband there. No Hispanic people are buried within the Normanna cemetery.

The incident accentuates the fact that some Texas cemeteries have long stood as symbols of segregation that still echoes through time. Marisa Bono, an attorney of the case handled by the Mexican American Legal Defense Educational Fund, remarks, “We really do feel like it’s symbolic of a lot of the racial tension that’s going on in the smaller, more rural communities of south Texas. It’s almost like these little pockets where time is frozen.”

This special segregation of the dead lead many black cemeteries to become abandoned and forgotten and, the resting places of countless unsung heroes of America’s Black past quietly evaporated.  Several months ago, over 800 unmarked graves were unearthed using high precision GPS technology at a black cemetery in Atlanta, demonstrating the potential for similar discoveries in cemeteries and forgotten burial grounds across the country–in the process, discovering the wrongs of the past, with the haunting shadow of Jim Crow’s ghost.

 

Sweta Dey

Sweta Dey

Sweta Dey is a student of English Honours at Miranda House, University of Delhi.

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