Climate change is erasing Black Cemeteries in the South. Here’s what you need to know

In parts of Oaklawn Memorial Cemetery, one of Mobile’s known Black burial sites, you can see glimpses of gray and moss-covered graves poking out of the long grass or behind fallen tree limbs. In other places, the barely visible dirt paths lead to beautifully cared-for plots with graves adorned in bright-colored flowers under the kind of dreamy and languid trees you might only find in the South.

Other paths, half-covered in weeds and grass, unspool into neglected tree lines and ground depressions where the graves of genuine Black heroes have been long consumed by nature.

“There are beautiful stories under all this,” said Ursel Forbes, observing the overgrown fields around her small family plot. She was checking it for flood damage with her brother John Forbes who was visiting from Texas. “What you can see is kept up by families and volunteers. So much of the rest is hidden or probably long gone.”

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Recent flooding shifted one of her grandparent’s gravestones. Her brother said that just touching it could cause it to fall.

Among those resting at Oaklawn are the famed Buffalo Soldiers and Tuskegee Airmen, alongside veterans from as far back as World War One and all the wars after that. The U.S. Coast Guard and a local veterans group help where they can, but most of the upkeep is done by families.

Without their help, Oaklawn would go the way of many other Black cemeteries in the United States, especially in the South: unseen, forgotten, and eventually lost.

Black cemeteries have long been a window into the past, where communities have gathered to mourn and remember their loved ones.

In the era of slavery, enslaved people were often buried in unmarked graves without formal acknowledgment. Black communities began to establish their own burial sites after emancipation as a form of resistance and resilience. The cemeteries were typically on the outskirts of cities, where land was cheaper and where white people would have fewer objections.

Upkeep of the cemeteries back then was just as it is today, through families and local volunteers.

Today, Black cemeteries hold a long and complex history, standing as a monument to Black heroes while also serving as a reminder of those who endured and overcame slavery, segregation and discrimination.

But as climate change brings increasingly unpredictable weather, Black cemeteries, in particular, are under serious threat.

Severe weather and income inequality

Flooding can shift gravestones and the heavy vaults below. Prolonged rain can cause large branches and trees to fall on the graves. Hurricanes, regular visitors to the Gulf of Mexico, can bring weather so destructive that it could wipe out an entire family’s history in a moment, just like what happened in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

For example, regular city or church cemeteries are better equipped to deal with severe weather. They have perpetual care programs and a responsibility to ensure that cemeteries have adequate drainage and that the elements do not overcome graves.

Black cemeteries are different.

“Income inequality is the same in life as it is in death for most Black people,” said Jennifer Blanks, lead author of Preservation at the Intersections: Patterns of Disproportionate Multihazard Risk and Vulnerability in Louisiana’s Historic African American Cemeteries. “Our problem as a society is we don’t protect Black spaces in the same way we protect white spaces, and because of that, climate change could erase so much of our history.”

Blanks’ research, published in Feb. 2021, looked at a region in Louisiana known as Cancer Alley, an 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge where over 150 petrochemical plants loom over tiny Black communities and the cemeteries where residents have for over 100 years buried their dead. The cancer rate in the region is higher than in the rest of the country.

The study found that cemeteries in South Louisiana sustained significant damage during hurricanes and annual flooding, such as dislodged coffins, making it difficult to reintern remains. They also found that burial records, often kept in nearby courthouses, had been lost, damaged, or destroyed.

“African American cemeteries are vulnerable to climate change impacts such as flooding, are often inaccessible, undocumented, and rarely recognized as environmental justice concerns, until now,” noted the report.

However, there has been a recent push to preserve African American cemeteries.

Legislation is helping

The African American Burial Grounds Preservation Act was signed into law in December. The act establishes a program at the National Park Service to provide competitive grants and technical assistance to research, identify, survey, and preserve African American cemeteries.

The act helps preserve African American history and reinforces other legislation. For example, the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act prohibits major projects that disturb historic sites. That law has been used recently to delay major oil and gas projects in Cancer Alley.Using the new act, communities now have assistance in establishing that an area is a site of historical significance, which means the company building the chemical plant must devise a plan to minimize harm. The Army Corp of Engineers can deny a permit if the proposed project cannot avoid harming the sites.

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By finding these Black cemeteries and unveiling other areas of historical significance, campaigners have been able to pause some of the oil and gas construction in Cancer Alley.

“That means less pollution for the people who live there now, and it also puts a small dent in climate change – the greatest threat to Black cemeteries and other historical sites,” said Blanks.

But documenting the burial sites of formerly enslaved people, which is the preferred mode of defense against petrochemical companies, is very difficult and time-consuming. Not all burial grounds are marked, and not all formerly enslaved people have documentation tying them to the area or if they were even buried at that location.

It’s only sometimes possible to piece together enough information to present to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Research and genealogy is vital

Lenora Gobert, a genealogist working with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a New Orleans-based environmental non-profit, recently succeeded in stopping the construction of a $9.4 billion petrochemical plant.

Gobert found documented evidence linking a 9-year-old Black girl who died in 1832 to an old plantation home where a petrochemical company wanted to build a new plant. The more evidence Gobert can gather about the people who used to live there, the better the chances are of saving the site for preservation.

“We’re working hand in hand with archaeologists,” she told Reckon in a recent interview. “I’m doing the genealogy work in the area, but the archaeologists are determining definitively where the sites are. And you can’t have one without the other. And that connection has been helpful in stopping these plastic companies from destroying these sites.”

Blanks also created a database and map of cemetery locations – most of which had never been mapped before – based on the race or ethnicity of those interned in two Louisiana parishes. After performing a spatial analysis comparing the cemetery’s exposure to floods and proximity to hazardous chemical sites, she found that Black cemeteries have more multihazard exposure than white, Jewish, and mixed cemeteries due to accessibility issues and flooding.

“There is literature out there that tells us this is happening in other parts of the country,” said Blanks. “Black cemeteries often have very sad and differing fates from others.”

For now, some graves at Oaklawn are barely surviving as part of the ever-present past. They stand in stark contrast to the neighboring Catholic Cemetery, which is primarily a white cemetery run by the Archdiocese of Mobile. The grass is short, and the trees are well-trimmed back.

Three Mile Creek is to the rear of both cemeteries and where the very last enslaved people to enter the United States were baptized sometime in the early 1860s. Just 200 feet away, you’ll find the perfectly preserved graves of Confederate Admiral Raphael Semmes and Timothy Meaher, who illegally brought those formerly enslaved people in on the slave ship Clotilda circa 1860.

“It’s nice over there, but we don’t worry about that history,” said Forbes as she cleared away a few loose leaves from her family’s plot. “We’re just doing our best over here.”

Christopher Harress

Christopher Harress |

Climate change reporter on the east and Gulf coasts.

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