A Counter to Confederate Monuments, Black Cemeteries Tell a Fuller Story of the SouthHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, Southern history, memorials
Maggie L. Walker, one of the first Black American women to run a bank, is buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Richmond, Va. So is John Mitchell Jr., editor of The Richmond Planet, a crusading newspaper founded by former slaves. Benjamin Franklin Randolph, a South Carolina state senator gunned down amid the white backlash against Reconstruction in 1868, lies in the Black cemetery named for him in Columbia.
In the late 19th century, as statues, monuments and government buildings were being dedicated to Robert E. Lee and other leaders of the Confederacy, a powerful and countervailing force of memory was unfolding, in many cases right across town: Black communities were building cemeteries to honor a first wave of soldiers, politicians and business leaders after the end of slavery.
Now, as Americans rethink Confederate monuments across the country, historians and community activists are working to restore and protect historic Black cemeteries, many of which have fallen into disrepair, the victims of mismanagement, political strife or abandonment.
“You have monuments to Black southerners and monuments to white southerners, and you can’t understand one without understanding the other,” said Ryan K. Smith, a professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University. “The humanity expressed in the cemeteries was an answer to the Lost Cause/New South efforts to excise African-American history.”
The Rev. Leroy Williams is on the front lines of the struggle to save one of these places, called Magnolia, in rural eastern Arkansas. Wild boars and snakes make it hazardous up in the hilly, wooded portion of the cemetery, established after the Civil War. But Mr. Williams, who is 76 — 50 of those years spent behind the pulpit of local Baptist churches — worries even more about what will happen when he is gone.
Black people fled his corner of the South for decades to escape racial prejudice, he said, or for better jobs and education, and he now looks after the 36-acre cemetery pretty much by himself.
“They just leave and they don’t come back,” Mr. Williams said. “I’m the lone ranger.”
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