cemetery preservation

Saving spaces (and myself.)

I repped hard for Wide-Awake yesterday at Save Your Spaces Festival, talking about Lane Street Project and the challenges and rewards of African-American cemetery preservation, as well as learning about amazing local projects here in Atlanta from public historians, artists, preservationists, and others of my new “tribe.” 

Shouts out to moderator Dr. Shari L. Williams, who spearheads Macon County, Alabama’s The Ridge Archaeological Project, and co-panelist Debra Taylor Gonzalez of Friends of Geer Cemetery, which offers a model for how Lane Street Project might grow and what we might achieve.

Deep appreciation to the visionary Nedra Deadwyler, founder of Civil Bikes and Save Your Spaces, for pulling me into this conversation with gentle prods and encouragement over the past year or so. My acute awareness that I am neither a public historian nor preservationist by training has had me hiding my light, but this experience reassured me of the value I bring to the work. I’ll move forward with a steadier voice and better tools to help save the historic spaces that mean most to me.

Save Your Spaces.

I’m honored to join these amazing women at Save Your Spaces Cultural Heritage and Historic Preservation Festival to talk about successes and challenges in the critical work of preserving African-American cemeteries.

If you’re intrigued by local history, have stories to tell or histories to preserve, are curious and want to learn more about cultural heritage and create ways to preserve it, please join us March 4 at Create ATL, 900 Murphy Avenue SW, Atlanta.

Lane Street Project: The work is everywhere and never ends.

“Here is how we lose these rural Black cemeteries:

1. We ignore the fact that it was illegal for enslaved people to read and write, so they weren’t going to mark their graves with people’s names. Instead, we use a lack of name-marked graves as evidence the site isn’t important.

2. We don’t recognize that enslaved and newly emancipated people had different ways of marking their graves than what was the fashion of rich white people, and instead, we call the plants and trees that were used to decorate graves ‘overgrowth.’

3. We make it impossible for people to access the cemetery, and we call it abandoned.

4. We develop over it.

Two writers recently joined the chorus of voices bearing witness to the disrespect paid historic African-American cemeteries across the eastern and southern United States.

The passage above, from Betsy Phillips’ “The Steady Erasure of Black Cemeteries,” published at nashvillescene.com on 12 December 2022, anchors a gut-wrenching piece about African-American cemeteries in the Nashville, Tennessee, area. She writes, “People and their descendants had their lives stolen from them by slavery, and now they’ve got their deaths stolen by development.”

The second piece, Seth Freed Wessler’s “Developers Found Graves in the Virginia Woods. Authorities Then Helped Erase the Historic Black Cemetery,” published 16 December 2022 by ProPublica, recounts in painful detail the connivance of local government, private archaeology firms, and Microsoft Corporation to clear out a African-American family cemetery standing in the way of a datacenter expansion.

50 ways you can help Lane Street Project.

The headstones of Della Hines Barnes and Dave Barnes, Odd Fellows Cemetery, September 2021.

  1. Join a clean-up.
  2. Bring a friend.
  3. Amplify our message.
  4. Follow Lane Street Project on Instagram or Facebook.
  5. Drop off coffee or hot chocolate or water for volunteers working at a clean-up.
  6. Bring doughnuts or other snacks to a clean-up.
  7. Donate money [Cashapp $blackwideawake] for supplies, tools, equipment, and professional services.
  8. Donate supplies, tools, equipment, and professional services.
  9. Bring a group of your church members to a clean-up.
  10. Visit and pay your respects.
  11. Leave flowers.
  12. Fill a bag with trash or debris.
  13. Cut 25 wisteria vines.
  14. Photograph a headstone and record its information.
  15. Record a headstone’s GPS location.
  16. Clear a section of fence.
  17. Tag us: #lanestreetproject
  18. Bring your fraternity or sorority members to a clean-up.
  19. Interview an elder about their memories of the cemeteries.
  20. Pay for a roll-off bin for a clean-up day.
  21. Bring your classmates to a clean-up.
  22. Wear a mask.
  23. Bring your alumni group to a clean-up.
  24. “Adopt” a grave or family plot, and keep it clean and neat.
  25. Bring your co-workers to a clean-up.
  26. Pour libations.
  27. Find out if you have people buried here.
  28. Speak truth to power.
  29. Bring your motorcycle club to a clean-up.
  30. Pray for the thousands buried in Odd Fellows, Vick, and Rountree Cemeteries.
  31. Honor your ancestors.
  32. Bring your fellow veterans to a clean-up. (There are many buried here.)
  33. Ask your councilperson to support efforts to reclaim Odd Fellows Cemetery.
  34. Buy Lane Street Project merchandise. The proceeds will benefit clean-up work.
  35. Bring your fellow Masons or Eastern Stars to a clean-up.
  36. Help us install fence art.
  37. Ask your councilperson to support efforts to redress harm done to Vick Cemetery.
  38. Ask us what we need.
  39. Bring your Scout troop or other youth group to a clean-up.
  40. Read about the histories of Wilson’s African-American cemeteries in Black Wide-Awake.
  41. Observe safety rules when working a clean-up.
  42. Watch your step.
  44. Clean headstones with water and a soft-bristled brush ONLY. No detergent. No soap.
  45. Ride by every once in a while and let us know if anything needs to be taken care of.
  46. Bring your social club to a clean-up.
  47. Teach your children and students about local African-American history.
  48. Be careful not to lean on headstones. Some are unstable, and if they fall you will be hurt.
  49. Share your thoughts about the futures of the cemeteries.
  50. Come again.

Lane Street Project: “North Carolina Cemeteries: Documentation and Research”

The Friends of the Archives will host a virtual annual meeting and program, “North Carolina Cemeteries: Documentation and Research,” Monday, November 1, 2021, 1-3 p.m.

Celebrate All Saints Day by learning about cemetery archaeology and genealogy!

Panels include:

  • Identifying and Protecting North Carolina’s Cemeteries, John J. Mintz, State Archaeologist, NC Office of State Archaeology (NC OSA), will discuss the active role DNCR and the NC OSA play in protecting North Carolina’s cemeteries.
  • Find a Grave? Identifying, Recording, and Preserving Historic Cemeteries in North Carolina, Melissa Timo, Historic Cemetery Specialist, NC OSA, will share tips for identifying graves and cemeteries using more than headstones. She will also introduce guidelines for care and research resources, including the NC Site File.
  • You Don’t Always Get What You See: Best Practices in Cemetery Identification, Sarah Lowry and Maeve Herrick, Archaeologists, New South Associates, Inc., will detail methods for locating, identifying, and delineating cemeteries.
  • Cemetery Resources for Family Researchers, Victoria P. Young, professional genealogist and FOA board member, will discuss several online sites for genealogical research, including recommendations for best practices and how to work around misleading information.

Keynote — Gone and Nearly Forgotten: Reclaiming African American Heritage in Rural Southern Cemeteries. Professor Charles Ewen of East Carolina University will provide comments and discuss his current project, a 400-grave cemetery in Ayden, N.C., and ways ECU has partnered with communities for twenty years to investigate African American cemeteries.

Join this free event to learn more about cemetery documentation, research, and archaeology. Register here, https://us06web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_02BfReP7SfqQeyRoADXzAQ. Submit questions before the program to Christine Botta, christine.botta@ncdcr.gov, or share your questions and comments during the event.

Odd Fellows Cemetery, Wilson, North Carolina.

Photo by Lisa Y. Henderson, April 2020.