The Differences Between African-American and Euro-American Cemeteries

South Carolina SC African-Americans Grave Matters – Introduction Differences Between African-American and Euro-American Cemeteries

This brief overview of African-American cemeteries has revealed that there are a lot of differences between traditional African-American and traditional Euro-American cemeteries. Some of these differences can be traced to different religious beliefs. Some are probably only the by-product of one group being enslaved by the other.

The location of African-American graveyards in marginal areas, for example, was probably the result of blacks being enslaved. Not only did owners not want to lose valuable land to slaves, but controlling even where the dead might be buried was yet another example of the power plantation owners had over their slaves.

The use of plants to mark graves, however, is likely related to African antecedents. Marking the graves was important, regardless of what was used, at least for the current generation. The predominance of temporary items – plants and wood planks, for example – suggests that it wasn't particularly important for future generations to know the location of any specific grave.

In fact, the use of temporary markers helps, in its own way, to ensure that the cemetery is always available to those who want to be buried with their kin. As one modern black man explained, "there is always room for one more person." This, of course, sounds impossible to many whites, who see cemeteries in terms of a finite number of square feet. But this is simply not how African-Americans have traditionally viewed graveyards.

Cynthia Conner, an archaeologist who studied South Carolina low country plantation cemeteries, remarked that the very ideology of black and white graveyards is fundamentally different. In white cemeteries, the:
idealization of death is paramount. The romanticization of the landscape is intended to create heaven on earth in the cemetery grounds and deny the blunt reality of death. This is initially accomplished through placement [of the white cemetery] in a favorable location. . . . The setting is further enhanced through the simultaneous control of unrestrained natural growth and the use of a few select trees such as live oaks to create a parklike atmosphere. . . . The black cemetery, on the other hand, is not directed toward a parklike environment, or, I believe, the denial of death.
African-American cemeteries have grave depressions and mounded graves. There is no attempt to make grass grow over the graves or create special vegetation. Trees, typically, are neither encouraged nor discouraged. Cemeteries, as previously mentioned, appear "neglected" or even "abandoned" in contrast to the neat, tidy rows of a white cemetery. The mapping of African-American cemeteries like the two examples previously discussed reveals the somewhat random placement of graves.

Old African-American cemeteries are rarely documented. They infrequently appear on maps and almost never are shown on historic plats. It just wasn't important to most plantation owners to show the location of "slave burial grounds." These graveyards, used for generations by tradition, are rarely delineated by deeds or other legal instruments.

These cemeteries, however, are often well-known to the rural African-American communities. Where traditional historical and documentary sources fail to provide information, often oral history can provide impressive details on the size, number of individuals buried, general locations of different family plots, and old fence lines. Too often, however, these local sources are not sought out.


Grave Matters – Introduction
History of Black Cemeteries
Archaeology of Black Cemeteries
Differences of Black Cemeteries
Preservation of Black Cemeteries
How You Can Help
More Information
Important Resources
The Chicora Foundation


Understanding Slavery
Free Blacks in Charleston
Preserving Black Cemeteries
Mitchelville Experiment
Quash Stevens Letters