Understanding Traditional African American Burial Practices & The Memorial in Cadiz

Nov 13, 2014

African American Memorial at East End Cemetery in Cadiz
Credit Leida Underhill, Main Street Manager, Cadiz

Cadiz City Council authorized Cadiz Renaissance to pursue plants to upgrade East End Cemetery. Mayor Lyn Bailey formed a committee whose work culminates in this Saturday's unveiling of a monument to African-Americans buried there without markers. MSU Archeology Students led by Professor Dr. Anthony Ortmann assisted with ground-penetrating radar. John L. Street Library's Kim Fortman identified the names of at least 45 African Americans listed, but officials estimate there being as many as 200 unknown graves. On Sounds Good, Kate Lochte speaks with Dr. Steve Jones about traditional African American burial practices.

MSU Professor Emeritus Dr. Steve Jones is the keynote speaker at the unveiling ceremony of the African American Memorial in Cadiz' East End Cemetery that begins at 2 p.m. Saturday with the Trigg County Community Choir providing music. The Cemetery is next to the Trigg County Schools campus on Main Street. The committee for the monument raised over $13,000 for the six-foot tall marker with landscaping. Officials estimate that as many as 200 African Americans are buried in East End, which dates to 1835.

Understanding African American Burial Traditions

Dr. Steve Jones prefaces his conversation with Kate noting the first African American cemetery was the Atlantic Ocean. Many ancestors were brought over on slave ships and many committed suicide or died on the ships because conditions were so horrendous. Dr. Jones says that a central African cultural theme was that it was important for all people to be part of a community. Being part of this community meant being buried together, with members of the extended family. This tradition has carried over into African American culture and in many cases continues today. The African American cemetery in Mayfield has at least one section, it's oldest and most traditional section, where the plots aren't neatly arranged, but rather spread out. Dr. Jones cites a quote that "there is always space for one more person on the black family plot."

Living in Mayfield, Dr. Jones was critical of the local African American churches for not upkeeping their cemeteries: open spaces, sunken graves, mounded graves, areas where the grass grew wild. He wrote an op-ed in the newspaper about the abandoned nature of the cemetery, but later found out that some of the characteristics he criticized were the same as in many traditional cemeteries.

Early African American cemeteries in the United States weren't concerned so much with individual graves, but rather where the extended family was buried. This is the central difference between typical African American cemeteries and European American cemeteries. Where white cemeteries were in open land with well-manicured, neat rows; black cemeteries tended to be in marginal areas, spread out in places that had a lot of underbrush and trees.

Does the separation today exist by choice rather than mandate?

Dr. Jones says discrimination was a factor. He cites some examples of families of deceased African American soldiers seeking to bury them in white cemeteries in the 1950s and 1960s, where only through winning a lawsuit could they bury their loved ones.

To this day, African Americans prefer to be buried with their kindred, he says, which happens to be in predominantly black cemeteries. On a personal note, Dr. Jones mentions his mother who died in 2008. When she died, two family plots were available, one in the cemetery he had criticized and another in the family plot with her sister and her husband's family. She said she wanted to be buried with her sister and so they found a plot in that space for her to be buried; a space for one more in the family.