African American Cemeteries

"For black Americans," writes historian John Michael Vlach, "the cemetery has long had special significance. Beyond its association with the fear and awe of death, which all humans share, the graveyard was, in the past, one of the few places in America where an overt black identity could be asserted and maintained."

For Tennessee's black population, the Civil War engendered both hope and hardship. Despite the Emancipation Proclamation, the defeat of the Confederacy, and the abolition of slavery by the Thirteenth Amendment, African Americans faced the reality of widespread racism in both the political and social arenas. In part as a response to such discriminations, black Tennesseans created their own vibrant communities, where they could gather, learn, and embrace the opportunity of their new freedom. They established churches, businesses, schools, and cemeteries throughout the state during the postwar period.

African-American cemeteries are unique historical resources that contribute significantly to our understanding of African-American life and culture in the decades following the Civil War. Not only do they serve as the final resting place for countless African-Americans who have "gone home," but they also document more than a century of history.

The significance of these sacred places extends far beyond the outward simplicity of the artifacts found there. A complex system of belief and social practice, shaped by more than a century of interaction between black and white cultures, has produced a landscape of multiple layers. While recent scholarship has begun to focus more attention on the presence of African-Americans in the Civil War landscape, cemeteries remain largely unexplored as historic sites.

Historic black cemeteries are sometimes difficult to identify and can be easily overlooked. Many are situated in remote locations, often on what was once the poorest or least developed land in a community. In rural areas, black cemeteries can be hard to reach or difficult to spot during a survey. In more urban locations, they are sometimes established just outside city limits, which excludes them from municipal upkeep and thus adds to their neglected appearance. Many African-American cemeteries succumb to development pressures.

The most important step in preserving and protecting African-American cemeteries is to keep their history alive. The lack of documentary evidence presents a challenge for those who seek to study and understand historic black cemeteries. Even when they have been in use for generations, these cemeteries are seldom documented through deeds or other legal records. Nevertheless, the local black population usually retains strong ties to the property. A detailed and accurate record of many African-American cemeteries can be created by seeking out local sources. The black funeral home director will likely know of a cemetery's existence and may have records of interment. Older residents can frequently provide at least a partial oral history of the site. If the cemetery is associated with a church and/or school, as is often the case, these records may also shed light on the site.

Many African-American cemeteries, because of their locale and encroaching development, face an uncertain future. For example, the migration of families and an aging population has affected the continued use and upkeep of many rural cemeteries. Those most intimately connected with the sites are moving or passing away, taking with them their knowledge of the traditional burial places. In other instances, the cultural customs of those using the cemeteries are changing or being modernized, causing some historic burial grounds to be abandoned. For still other historic black cemeteries, disuse and remoteness make them an easy target for vandalism.

You can download Preserving African American Historic Places: Suggestions and Sources for suggestions and information on preserving and interpreting African American places. This publication of MTSU's Center for Historic Preservation also provides historical context for African American resources.