Grass grow in de graveyard/Sing, O Graveyard!/Graveyard ought to know me
October 19, 2015 8:16 AM   Subscribe

Black Deaths Matter: A Generation of African Americans Are Buried in Racism
In Richmond, Virginia, two nearby African-American cemeteries, East End and Evergreen, are obscured by creeping kudzu. The cemeteries are within view of Richmond’s city-owned Oakwood Cemetery, which holds the remains of an estimated 17,000 Confederate soldiers. Brian Palmer, a journalist, is working on a film that follows a group of local volunteers who hope to reclaim East End. He learned that the gulf between the neglect in East End and the meticulous perpetual care in Oakwood is supported by contemporary public policy: The state government allocates funds to the Daughters of the Confederacy, a private group, to provide for the maintenance of Confederate soldiers’ graves in Oakwood and dozens of other state cemeteries.
posted by zombieflanders (26 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
What a fascinating and sad story, both in terms of the broader implications and in terms of the history lost and rediscovered. Obviously the African-American cemeteries ought to be kept to the same standard as the white cemeteries with Confederate soldiers. Of course, if you managed to convince the state of Virginia of that, they'd just cut the funding for maintenance to the Confederate cemetery.
posted by immlass at 8:45 AM on October 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


immlass, maybe I'm too vindictive, but I'll admit my first thought here was "cut the funds and let the filthy traitor worshipers pay to maintain their own fucking shrines to slavey".

History is one thing, taxing poor black people to maintain a shrine to the scum who fought to keep their ancestors enslaved is something else. Really the funding is just a way to continue the state sanctioned and paid for approval of the Confederacy. Graves for US vets don't get that much in Richmond, but traitors are treated like saints.

It seems mostly like a way to remind black Virgininians that they are still second class citizens.
posted by sotonohito at 10:57 AM on October 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


That's a bad pullquote, which really doesn't characterize the article well - it goes in depth about how the white-only cemeteries charged more up front to build up perpetual care funds, while black-only cemeteries did not have the funding or incentive to do so. There's a strong difference in the kind of care and upkeep taking care of graves in a well maintained cemetery, and upkeep of graves in one where there has been zero maintenance at all for forty years.

The other thing that I think most people may not know is that at a certain point, Congress voted veterans of the Civil War - on both sides - into being "US veterans", which means that funding for taking care of generic veterans' graves also means finding for Civil War veteran graves.
posted by corb at 11:14 AM on October 19, 2015


I just deeply, viscerally don't understand why children in the south aren't being raised with a deep sense of shame about the confederacy. I mean, we should talk about it, we should discuss the fact that decent well-meaning people can be part of terrible systems, but we shouldn't pretend it's something to be proud of.
posted by you're a kitty! at 11:25 AM on October 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


The other thing that I think most people may not know is that at a certain point, Congress voted veterans of the Civil War - on both sides - into being "US veterans", which means that funding for taking care of generic veterans' graves also means finding for Civil War veteran graves.

I did not know that. The thing is, what congress can do, congress can undo.

If you managed to convince the state of Virginia of that, they'd just cut the funding for maintenance to the Confederate cemetery.

That doesn't sound all that bad.
posted by el io at 11:55 AM on October 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


I just deeply, viscerally don't understand why children in the south aren't being raised with a deep sense of shame about the confederacy. I mean, we should talk about it, we should discuss the fact that decent well-meaning people can be part of terrible systems, but we shouldn't pretend it's something to be proud of.

That runs against a momentum built up over at least four generations to enshrine the ancestors of many as gallant heroes, a momentum that is only now slowing down. I was born in Richmond, raised in Charlottesville, and it's a hard cognitive dissonance of family history and geography to easily adopt this position. You grow up just existing with one reality, and not necessarily because it's a message that's always enforced and pounded into your head over and over; it's just omnipresent like accents and hot humid summer days. I have more ancestors, direct and indirect, than fingers who fought for the Confederacy, one who I recently learned died in the Battle of Gettysburg of all things, and I'm definitely for teaching my future children and instructing others to view the Confederacy as something supremely evil.

...but, for all of it, it panics my heart whenever anyone mentions tearing down the equestrian statues of Lee and Jackson in my hometown. It's messed up.
posted by Atreides at 12:25 PM on October 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


Great response, Atreides, thank you.
posted by you're a kitty! at 12:31 PM on October 19, 2015


"I just deeply, viscerally don't understand why children in the south aren't being raised with a deep sense of shame about the confederacy."

So they should be shamed for being born in the south? And there are no descendants of confederates in the north? I don't understand why this needs to be a thing. Just teach the problems of the past so that the problems of the present and future can be addressed. Don't shame children for actions they had no part in.
posted by I-baLL at 1:00 PM on October 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


Don't shame the children themselves, of course, or southerners in general (and you're right that it's not a clear dividing line, and I apologize for my choice of words). I meant more that the nation as a whole shouldn't be proud of those events. We shouldn't be putting public funds towards preserving confederate graveyards and monuments, and Confederacy apologists should be scorned rather than funded by the federal government.

I understand that it's a complex history and that many families have a much stronger sense of multigenerational ties than mine does, but let's not pretend the confederacy was anything other than an embarrassment to us all.
posted by you're a kitty! at 1:10 PM on October 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


I think it's actually really hard for a lot of people to deal with how personal to some the actions and character of their distant ancestors are. We're a much more highly mobile society - a lot of my friends can't trace their ancestry back more than a few generations, so this all seems like "no big deal!" But there's a difference between thinking the actions of past people, collectively, was wrong, and thinking your Grandpa Joe was a Bad Man, you know? It reminds me of when I was living in Germany for a while. No people more angry at the Nazis could you collectively find - but when you start to ask questions like "But what did your grandpa do in the war?" It becomes awkward and evasive and bitterly defensive. People don't want to think of the person who was good to them, and their elder that they want to respect, as someone entangled with something they morally oppose.

And when you have pictures of your great-great grandparents, and their names are in the family Bible, and you have some trunks of their stuff, it seems like it'd be a lot harder to say "fuck those guys" - and I think honestly we suffer for trying to make them. DeNazification happened in Germany without demonizing the Wehrmacht and it was very effective - I'm not sure why we can't manage the same thing in the South. You can condemn the slaveholding principles behind the Confederacy without condemning every Confederate soldier, some of whom are going to be somebody's beloved ancestor or something. (And honestly, the way we differentiate between the Wehrmacht and the SS seems like a good model for how we treat people in history. You could be an average Joe who wanted to protect your family in the Wehrmacht. You had to try hard to be awful to be SS. Similarly, you could be just a shlep and join the Confederacy, but if you were a slave catcher you were probably a fucker.)
posted by corb at 1:27 PM on October 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


[joins the Wehrmacht to protect my family from the Judeo-Bolshevik menace]
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 1:51 PM on October 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


If Grandpa Joe took up arms to fight to the death for the right to own human beings, Grandpa Joe was a terrible person, no matter how many bibles you family owns, regardless of whether Grandpa Joe personally owned human beings. This is not an abstract what-if thing. The Confederacy was deeply evil and people who did and do defend it in any part are participating in deep evil.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:54 PM on October 19, 2015 [11 favorites]


DeNazification happened in Germany without demonizing the Wehrmacht and it was very effective[...]And honestly, the way we differentiate between the Wehrmacht and the SS seems like a good model for how we treat people in history. You could be an average Joe who wanted to protect your family in the Wehrmacht. You had to try hard to be awful to be SS. Similarly, you could be just a shlep and join the Confederacy, but if you were a slave catcher you were probably a fucker.

It actually happened by whitewashing a ton of horrible stuff--including actual war crimes--that the Wehrmacht had been complicit in. The average soldier was likely to be anti-Semitic, anti-Russian, and/or anti-Allied in general. Many were as willing to destroy communities and families as any SS soldier. At least they had the good sense to remove the symbols of genocide and hatred, rather than adopt them en masse across the region, including as state flags and mottoes. In Germany, so much of the country is (rightfully) ashamed of their Nazi heritage. Here, it's been not just held to but celebrated for a century and a half, and still has a near-stranglehold on politics and policy. Which, BTW, was what the article was about: that the glorification of the Confederacy made historically African-American cemeteries difficult to create and maintain from the very start. That it continues to be a problem is not some mere logistical issue, it's that the structural racism from both citizens and their governments lets their victims lay conveniently forgotten by white folks who will gladly defend memorials and flags to those that wanted to continue one of the country's worst horrors.

I'm not sure why we can't manage the same thing in the South.

Maybe because of the whole Lost Cause nonsense and Confederate apologia that pops up every goddamn time we talk about it?
posted by zombieflanders at 1:57 PM on October 19, 2015 [13 favorites]


Also, it really sucks for you if your distant ancestors' evil deeds make you feel guilty, but that's a consequence of (a) the fact that you've chosen to tie your identity to someone you never met? and (b) your ancestor's terrible behavior. It's not your fault unless you make it your fault by supporting a revisionist history that has deeply racist repercussions.
posted by you're a kitty! at 2:09 PM on October 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


Given that the last Civil War soldier died in the 1950s at age 110 or something like that, someone alive today with a Civil War ancestor knows very little beyond re-told stories that will of course emphasize the positive. The fact that someone shares your blood doesn't make them good, so I am not bound to assume anything positive about who they were as people.

Meanwhile, we know what the causes for the Civil War were, and we know that was primarily about maintaining the institution of slavery, and that this was not some unknown thing at the time -- it was in a majority of the articles of secession, as we've gone over many times in these threads. So I think we can take as a given that some soldiers joined for reasons other than preserving slavery while also knowing that the predominant cause the war was slavery, and that nearly everyone taking up arms knew that, and that these verifiable facts outweigh any sense of obligation we have to their descendants based on "well, my Pa said that Grampa Joe said that great Grampa Joe said that great-great Grampa Joe was a good guy."
posted by tonycpsu at 2:20 PM on October 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


I think a strong step toward reorienting the South would be to make a point of impressing how the lives of others in the past matter as much as one's ancestors. I can put names and lives to my ancestors, but an entire people are delegated to a very faceless name of "slave." In this thread, on this topic, it's one of those instances where perhaps a lot could be accomplished if white students in high schools or middle school went out on field trips to help clear these historically black cemeteries, and were even assigned projects to try and learn as much as they might on names they discover. If we can provide more agency to the black dead, as we already assign to our ancestors, perhaps it would make it easier for current and future generations to better identify with and understand the horror that these people, whom they have physically interacted with by helping to care for their resting places, had ancestors (or they, themselves), were treated in such a manner.

In one indirect way, I suppose, it would help balance the tax dollars at work toward such upkeep.
posted by Atreides at 2:26 PM on October 19, 2015 [7 favorites]


corb, read A Nazi Past: Recasting German Identity in Postwar Europe by David Messenger. The Wehrmacht leadership tried desperately to cover their asses by distancing themselves from the SS, by (as zombieflanders says) whitewashing what had actually happened: massacres, attempted genocide, rapes, deliberate bombing of civilians, widespread looting, etc., etc.

Their extensive efforts to gloss over and cover up extensive, heinous war crimes should not be looked to as any sort of guideline.
posted by zarq at 2:44 PM on October 19, 2015 [7 favorites]


Mod note: Folks, let's set aside the "what part of the Nazi machine were Confederate soldiers most like?" question; it's pretty far off the track of these neglected black cemeteries and what can be done about them today.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 3:47 PM on October 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


immlass, maybe I'm too vindictive, but I'll admit my first thought here was "cut the funds and let the filthy traitor worshipers pay to maintain their own fucking shrines to slavey".

The neglect of graves in general bothers me and while I think giving the Daughters of the Confederacy (!!!) money in this day and age to maintain anything is a terrible idea, I don't like the idea of just letting all the graveyards go to pot. Apart from the public nuisance potential of an overgrown graveyard and the historical evidence that might be lost (cf the mention of the lost grave of Dred Scott's wife), it's just bad cess. So I'd rather the state fund it even if that means caring for Confederate graves, too. Just fund it all equally (yeah I know, like it's gonna happen). Certainly let the Daughters raise their own damn money instead of giving them taxpayer dollars.

FWIW, I donate annually to a cemetery in east Texas where some of my ancestors are buried. Possibly ones who fought in the Civil War, but more recently, my grandmother. I don't want it neglected so I put my money where my mouth is. I'm lucky enough to have some money to spare for that purpose, but not everybody is, which is part of why I'd like to see grave upkeep for non-profit or closed cemeteries made a publicly-paid service.
posted by immlass at 4:20 PM on October 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


immlass, I could certainly get along with a general graveyard maintenance fund, even including those focused or exclusively for Confederate dead. What I object very strongly to is the Confederate graveyards being maintained, by tax money taken in part from black people, while historic black graveyards (and other historic but non-Confederate graveyards) decay and are not maintained.

It's hard to make a case for spending even a few hundred million on general graveyard maintenance when there's so many programs for the living that are un- or under funded. But I agree that if for no other reason than maintaining history it's a good idea. A hard sell perhaps, but a good idea nevertheless.
posted by sotonohito at 7:12 PM on October 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think part of the problem is the issue of who has responsibility for a graveyard? What about individual graves? And it becomes more complex because in many cases, cemeteries stand on this weird straddle point between a business and land. So a company usually owns the cemetery, just like businesses often own land. But when a business becomes insolvent and stops paying the taxes on the land, the land gets seized - but the city doesn't have to keep their business running. I imagine they don't have the facilities or hiring authority for it - there's no city Grave Maintainer. I imagine that's why they're farming out the work to nonprofits in the first place. But at the same time, a cemetery isn't just regular land - it's history and ancestors and people's family buried in the ground, and what responsibility does that bring? How long do they have to maintain the graves? Because it's nice that Dred Scott's wife was buried there and that got it on the historic registry, but what about the equally deserving graves that just happen to hold no one famous?

And honestly - in a lot of cities you do see this sort of "Friends of X" thing set up - but it would be astonishingly blind not to acknowledge that those sorts of things only tend to work when they're a project of the wealthy in the first place.
posted by corb at 9:03 PM on October 19, 2015


But I agree that if for no other reason than maintaining history it's a good idea.

Not to be too gruesome about it, but in terms of graveyards there is a potential health hazard (e.g. in severe flooding/storms, particularly with recent graves) so I think it's properly a government function. But yeah, in the world we live in where we can't get so many basic services funded because: greed, racism, etc., it's not going to happen.
posted by immlass at 9:51 PM on October 19, 2015


it's pretty far off the track of these neglected black cemeteries and what can be done about them today.]

How many people does MetaFilter have in and around Richmond?
posted by pracowity at 12:01 AM on October 20, 2015


Not to be too gruesome about it, but in terms of graveyards there is a potential health hazard (e.g. in severe flooding/storms, particularly with recent graves) so I think it's properly a government function.

At what point does this cease to be an issue? I can imagine that burials from the last 30-50 years maybe the answer is "never," given the embalming and encapsulation we took to doing. But surely by the time you get to Depression-era burials there's nothing but generalized rot there, no?
posted by phearlez at 9:26 AM on October 20, 2015


Whitney Kimball: One Man's Fight to Reclaim a Racist South Carolina Monument
The Hamburg Massacre plaque currently sits in front of the men's room at the First Providence Baptist Church in Carrsville (which itself was reconstructed from beams that were brought uphill from Hamburg and dried out). No names are named, but it relays the basics: 200 men from local "rifle clubs"—formed to intimidate black and white Republican voters—rode into town and captured 25 to 30 blacks, executed four of them, with a total of six black and one white man killed in the skirmish.

"It would end up in the river if we left it out," Wayne says about the marker. You'd think he's kidding, until you read about the other Hamburg plaque that went "missing" in 2004, which simply noted Hamburg as an important port which "declined" "with changing times and fortunes." Who knows why that plaque went missing, but one can guess that the new one isn't going to go over smoothly.

Wayne speaks plainly: the Hamburg revival, he says, is not just a historical project, but also a mission from God. The plaque is a mission from God. "People ask me how I can remember all this stuff," he adds. "I tell people that if they'd done the right thing in Hamburg, there would have been no need for the Civil Rights Movement." Soon after the massacre, "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, a South Carolina politician who'd participated in the killings, stuffed ballot boxes and rewrote the Constitution, re-segregating schools and creating the "understanding clause" which effectively set back voting rights for another century. (Tillman is now an eight-foot-tall bronze statue in front of the South Carolina statehouse.) Wayne pulled out a photo of the South Carolina legislature from the mid-1860s, the first election after the state's 60 percent African American population had gained the right to vote. It's a shocking image. The majority of the men are black. It's more black people in government than…ever.
posted by zombieflanders at 11:52 AM on November 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


I haven't had a chance to read the link, but a high number of African American men in the legislature in the 1860s was not uncommon in the least. The majority of white men were at the time disenfranchised due to their participation with the Confederate government/military during the war. It wasn't until the respective states were allowed back and Reconstruction ended that the white vote returned with a vengeance and quickly worked in practically every Southern state to crush the black vote. It's not a surprise at all that Jim Crow laws began to proliferate at that point, as the white majority wanted to make it clear where the African-American minority belonged after their civil rights were sacrificed on the altar of national unity.
posted by Atreides at 12:29 PM on November 5, 2015


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