WORDS BY VALERIE WADE
When we talk about the climate crisis, we often talk about it in the context of preserving our future—but what about our past? Here, public historian Valerie Wade unearths what we can learn about America’s race and class divides from the disproportionate impact of climate change on cemeteries.
If you stand in the street in front of my great-grandparents’ house in rural Louisiana, you will be flanked by two cemeteries. On one side is a white cemetery, several acres large, its entrance marked by a tall iron sign held up with brick pillars. There are paved paths for cars and a small church that has likely stood for more than a century. On the opposite side is a Black cemetery, my family’s cemetery, its entrance framed by a more modest iron sign in the middle of a chain link fence. It is a serene view, especially if you position yourself just so at dusk in summer. The sun dips behind the pines and oaks, casting a lovely amber glow over the artificial flowers left by the living. Amidst the fresh country air and the chorus of crickets and cicadas, you almost forget that you are standing right in the middle of a macabre representation of segregation and inequality. In life and death, one cannot escape the binds of class and race in the United States.
As a child, I knew about segregation, and I understood why the white cemetery was at least three times larger than ours and why so many of their headstones were more ornate than ours. As an adult, I’ve come to understand these resting places as important sites of memory and preservation, not just for families, but for entire communities. That understanding is why, after personally experiencing hurricanes and floods, I cannot shake the feeling that we all should be paying more attention to how our climate is altering the ways we commemorate the past. Class not only influences how we experience climate change, but it also has a profound effect on what parts of our history are preserved, and what parts are allowed to turn to dust.
Class not only influences how we experience climate change, but it also has a profound effect on what parts of our history are preserved, and what parts are allowed to turn to dust.
There is a growing body of evidence that suggests hurricanes and tropical storms are becoming more intense. Warmer oceans, largely a result of human activity, contribute to storms with stronger winds and heavier rainfall. Fifteen years ago, Hurricane Katrina became a major disaster that put this country’s race and class divides in plain view for the world to see. Since the storm, preservationists have lamented the loss of physical and cultural history in New Orleans and throughout the Gulf Coast. For historians and culture workers, Katrina signaled the importance of climate and class in preservation efforts. Hurricanes Ike and Harvey further solidified the urgency of an analysis of class, climate change, and preservation. Communities across the Gulf Coast realized that Black American cemeteries were crumbling, and the continued displacement of poor Black Americans as a result of flooding was a hindrance to solving this problem.
Take, for instance, acclaimed bluesman Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. Gatemouth Brown was a Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist born in Vinton, Louisiana. He was raised in Orange, Texas, and he began his career with Don Robey’s Peacock Records, a Houston-based label that was crucial to the development of rhythm-and-blues and gospel music in the 1950s-1970s. Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home. Although he survived the storm, he passed away shortly after it, and he was buried in Hollywood Cemetery (established in 1875) in Orange. Hurricane Rita came through right after he died, and it carried away the small temporary marker on his grave. When Hurricane Ike hit the Gulf Coast in September 2008, floodwaters damaged Hollywood Cemetery, and Gatemouth’s casket floated away from his grave. Luckily, his estate was able to recover his casket and repair his gravesite, but many families were not so fortunate. When Hurricane Harvey made landfall in 2017, Hollywood Cemetery, caskets were unearthed again.
In late May 2015, a cyclist was startled to come upon a casket on the side of a trail after a foot of rain inundated the Houston area in the historic Memorial Day Flood. The casket had been buried in nearby Riceville Cemetery in 2007, which was established in 1889. Despite what some may believe, not all historic Black cemeteries are neglected. They are still in use, but more frequent flooding is a concern for the families that care for them.
In Houston, several historic Black cemeteries are in danger from the combined effects of flooding and gentrification. Olivewood Cemetery (1875) and College Park Memorial Cemetery (1896) are the resting places for many Black Houston pioneers. Pleasant Green-Culbertson Cemetery, Harrisburg-Jackson Cemetery (which is actually two adjacent cemeteries whose boundaries are now unknown), was in use from the 1800s to the 1950s. Evergreen Negro Cemetery, established in the 1880s, is the resting place for several Buffalo Soldiers and World War I veterans. It fell out of use in the 1950s, and in 1960, the city removed nearly 500 graves to run Lockwood Drive right through the center of the graveyard. While there are local efforts to preserve and revitalize these cemeteries, the constant flooding in recent years has posed a challenge. Digging deeper into the history of Black American gravesites, one realizes that class directly connects to a community’s ability to advocate for preservation. The violence of the Jim Crow Era, the use of eminent domain to run highways through Black communities, and general disinvestment in historically Black inner cities in the 1970s through the 1990s left many cemeteries abandoned.
The state of our cemeteries calls us to question our history of income inequality, and how class and race are linked in the United States. Decades from now, how can we adequately study the history of the Gulf Coast if the material culture of white communities is largely preserved, but the material culture of Black communities is lost?
Not all is lost. There are efforts at the federal level to preserve Black American cemeteries around the country. With this legislation, more people are having conversations about what it means to preserve the past when our future is threatened by climate change. The state of our cemeteries calls us to question our history of income inequality, and how class and race are linked in the United States. Decades from now, how can we adequately study the history of the Gulf Coast if the material culture of white communities is largely preserved, but the material culture of Black communities is lost? The extent of the displacement and loss of cultural items from recent natural disasters may never be known. In addition to cemeteries, family photo albums, precious family letters, scrapbooks, vintage wedding dresses, carefully guarded recipes, are all lost in the floodwaters and mold after the storms. As a society, we still view poor people as transient. We don’t always respect the roots that they put down, whether they be small but treasured cemeteries or old row houses or boxes of sepia-toned photos in the back of grandma’s closet. Wealthier people in Houston have responded to these more intense storms by lifting their houses or taking other measures. Poor people simply don’t have those options.
My hope is that we come to understand that our past and our future are connected. Cemeteries aren’t simply outdated reminders of our own mortality. They symbolize connection between families and communities. When our cemeteries, and by proxy our neighborhoods, are threatened by climate change, we should stop to question why. The answers may help us save future generations from our biases and mistakes.