Health

The quest to find African American graves before they’re lost to climate crisis

On a cloudy weekend day in May, Jennifer Blanks took a trip to Canaan cemetery in Bryan, Texas. The six-acre site is the final resting place for a community of primarily Black farmers and veterans, with generations stretching back to the 1800s. Among the interred is Powell Harvey, the first Black man to serve as the Brazos county constable.

If Blanks hadn’t known this before visiting, though, she might have missed many of the graves completely.

With the Canaan community long disbanded, the cemetery has fallen into disrepair. The conditions Blanks found at Canaan that day were “deplorable”, as she described it – headstones barely recognizable, obscured by uneven earth, overgrown vegetation, and ant colonies. Through the bramble and buzzing mosquitoes, she was able to spot some signs of care, gravesites marked by medicine bottles, tools, and other objects that offered a glimpse into the deceased’s profession or interests.

Still, before she left, Blank snapped a few photos she would later post to Instagram. For the past year, Blanks has been cataloging historic Black cemeteries and burial sites on Twitter and Instagram as The Cemetery Sista. Not long after stopping in Bryan, she visited 12 cemeteries in Marion county, Texas, over the course of just two days, sharing photos of herself hiking around burial sites, feet obscured by tall weeds. She concluded the post with a hashtag: “Hot grave summer.”

“It’s a different perspective that I’m bringing to Black cemeteries and the story that you can tell with them,” Blanks says.

Joy Semien, who co-authored a study with Jennifer Blanks, visited nearly a dozen Black cemeteries across Louisiana last summer. The sites were located near the edge of former plantations, oil refineries, and other signs of development, such as train tracks. Photograph: Courtesy of Joy Semien

Blanks understands that visiting cemeteries can be fraught – bringing up feelings of sadness, regret, fear, familial duty and obligation. And, as a PhD candidate studying cemetery preservation planning and disaster management at Texas A&M, she understands, perhaps more than most, the effort it requires to maintain these spaces over the course of years, let alone centuries.

But her line of work is increasingly urgent. As both the climate crisis and development intensify, Black cemeteries are now at a disproportionate risk of being lost, some before they have even been officially found. Just as they threaten the living, floods and hurricanes can uproot the buried, destroying families’ monuments to their loved ones.

“If you consider the vulnerable populations that are greatly impacted by [climate] disasters, you can safely assume that their cultural resources are [also at] risk of being destroyed, displaced, damaged,” Blanks says.

To prevent that from happening, academics, officials, and community leaders are spearheading initiatives to document these spaces. For Blanks, part of this work is reframing public perception of cemeteries – on and offline. From her perspective, cemeteries are rich cultural resources well worth both preserving and interrogating, and she takes the responsibility of safeguarding her ancestors’ legacies seriously.

“A cemetery, that’s evidence of a person,” Blanks says. “You can find out so much about a person with just their name, birthdate, and the location of the cemetery where they’re interred.”

Jennifer Blanks: ‘A cemetery, that’s evidence of a person.’
Jennifer Blanks: ‘A cemetery, that’s evidence of a person.’ Photograph: Courtesy of Jennifer Blanks

That basic information can be difficult to come by for many African Americans. The graves of historically enslaved people are known to be scattered across the country, but many are unmarked and have been left out of state and federal records. In the past decade alone, the remains of thousands of Black people in the US have been discovered, many tracing back centuries.

Often, previously unrecorded graves are uncovered during construction projects, found by workers under schools and houses, or displaced during climate disasters, such as hurricanes and floods.

For example, in 2016, a slow-moving storm dumped 20in of rain across southern Louisiana, flooding the streets in Baton Rouge and surrounding towns. More than 800 graves were damaged from 74 cemeteries stretching across 19 parishes.

Of those, about half were in burial sites “completely unknown” to the state government, according to Ryan Seidemann, who leads the state’s Cemetery Response Task Force.

The taskforce was established after that flood to deal with the cyclical, recurring problem of cemetery damage. Since its creation in 2018, Seidemann says it has remained in a near-constant state of activation in response to a steady stream of extreme weather.

The taskforce is still responding to the fallout from the historically active 2020 hurricane season, which saw three hurricanes hit the state. Seidemann says upwards of 2,600 graves were damaged – nearly double the number of graves affected by Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita combined.

As the agency has scrambled to address this destruction during the pandemic, its roadmap to recovery has been hindered by compounding crises, including a cold snap and more flooding. And now, the state is just beginning to respond to the impacts of Hurricane Ida, which caused severe flooding along the coast. This speaks to one of the greatest challenges of climate mitigation efforts, as the windows for recovery between extreme weather events shorten.

For the dead and living alike, the burden of withstanding and recovering from a climate disaster falls unequally, along racial and economic lines.

“People have no concept of how many cemeteries are beneath our feet,” says Dr Andrea Roberts, assistant professor of landscape architecture and urban planning at Texas A&M. Roberts says that, historically, “so many communities decided that certain cemeteries were OK to build on top of and others weren’t. That’s real evidence of Jim Crow and the racial apartheid in this country.”

A deteriorating tombstone is close to collapse at the Lincoln memorial cemetery in Portsmouth, Virginia, in March. Many Black Americans excluded from white-owned cemeteries built their own burial spaces, and their descendants are working to preserve the grounds.
A deteriorating tombstone is close to collapse at the Lincoln memorial cemetery in Portsmouth, Virginia, in March. Many Black Americans excluded from white-owned cemeteries built their own burial spaces, and their descendants are working to preserve the grounds. Photograph: Steve Helber/AP

Earlier this year, Roberts and Blanks, along with two other doctoral candidates, published an article analyzing the many risks faced by cemeteries in two Louisiana parishes. They mixed field research with crowdsourced data from websites like Ancestry and Find a Grave to identify burial sites, then searched for signifiers to determine the races of those buried. Those included explicit mentions of race in the cemetery descriptions, as well as certain headstone markings that historically refer to Black cultural or religious organizations.

The researchers then overlaid that information with federal flood maps and the locations of petrochemical facilities. They found that the Black cemeteries were most heavily concentrated in “exposure zones” where they were more likely to encounter these hazards.

Roberts says that mapping these sites not only forces their consideration in nearby planning and development but also acknowledges the rich history of the region.

She has authenticated hundreds of Black cemeteries as part of the Texas Freedom Colonies Project, an initiative she founded to identify and preserve settlements created by communities of former slaves. With support from the National Trust of Historic Preservation and Texas A&M’s Department of Landscape and Urban Planning, as well as Blanks working as a research assistant, they’ve produced maps of these sites, which Roberts says have been used by the Texas Department of Transportation and the US army corps of reserves.

Roberts notes that the discovery of Black cemeteries is often framed as a heartwarming story or historical quirk, focusing on residents who stumble on graves in their neighborhoods without considering the historical context. She argues that this framing ignores the more complex story about the development of many US cities, including the systemic discrimination that might have forced residents away from these sites over the year despite their deep familial ties.

“They think our sites, our cemeteries are orphaned, and they’re not,” Roberts says.

In December 2020, the Senate passed a bill that would task the National Park Service with creating a national database of Black cemeteries, but it sputtered in the House of Representatives. The act is expected to be reintroduced this year.

Until a federal effort to catalog such sites is underway, the work of preserving Black cemeteries often falls on communities with the resources and time to look for them.

According to a mitigation guide for cemeteries the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) published in June, cemetery owners are not required to have any disaster preparedness plans in place. Aside from guidance, the agency itself provides cemetery and burial support on a case-by-case basis in response to disasters.

Melissa Timo, a historic cemetery specialist for the North Carolina Office of Archaeology, says her office is using a Fema grant to track the impact of climate change on coastal cemeteries and support communities in leading their own preservation processes.

“Sometimes, cemeteries are the only thing that’s left,” Timo says of historic African American settlements in the state.

Roberts and Blanks have also piloted initiatives to empower residents to do their own surveys of cemeteries in their communities, working with the Root Cause Research Center to create a crowdsourced cemetery registry.

It’s about being proactive, Blanks says, whether it’s in changing the cultural conversation on social media or advocating for policies that better protect these spaces before disaster strikes.

“A lot of black cemeteries have gone through a lot of trauma,” she adds. Blanks sees the work she’s doing as a small part of stopping that cycle and securing a lasting future for those who have passed.


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