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Bad Weather Is Affecting Black History Preservation. What Should Be Done to Prevent It?

As a public historian, Valerie Wade frequently visits graves in order to help customers learn more about their family history.

In the event of a successful voyage, she will be able to locate the headstone she seeks, which serves as a permanent reminder of a location’s past. Cities are expanding, resources are limited and life-changing weather disasters across the country are influencing who is remembranced.

Preservationists and activists from all over the country are working to keep Black cemeteries and the tales they hold alive.

As a result of segregation, black and white cemeteries in the United States have historically been separated, resulting in grave maltreatment of the deceased and the destruction of important family histories.

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Wade elaborates on how race and class in the United States influence whose graves and histories are successfully maintained and which are lost in an article written in late 2020, titled “From Dust to Dust: Climate Change and Cemeteries.”

Wade told AccuWeather, “I think climate change has these ripple effects.” “These aren’t things that people automatically consider, but they do have a cultural impact. One of the ways that I’m trying to educate people to think about the environment, which has an economic influence on cemeteries, is public history.”

Genealogy projects and historical research are the emphases of Wade’s Houston, Texas-based company, Lynnfield Historical Consulting. Headstone markers have generally offered reliable family history information, but they may differ from older census records when Wade’s research has taken her to cemeteries.

It’s important to view census data with a grain of salt, especially in communities of color, because in the past, census takers didn’t pay as much attention to details like spelling and birthdays. Wade explained that this is especially true in communities of color. This is why there can be a discrepancy between what you read in the records and what you see in a cemetery.

However, finding a grave or a headstone for a particular member of one’s family can be difficult. Many people could not afford to erect a permanent memorial for a loved one who had passed away, such as a headstone or burial marker.

To designate a gravesite, some people substituted a huge rock or another object. Wade says that as individuals migrate or are displaced, the knowledge of a person’s final resting place might be forgotten.

Even in the best of times, there’s always sadness and regret, Wade said, and it’s possible that the “what ifs” he’s thinking about revolve around things like missing out on an opportunity to speak with a relative before they die or not paying attention to a family reunion so that the information wasn’t lost.

This is a reminder of what our forefathers went through, Wade explained. “Society was built up this way: Some individuals were worth remembering because they had the resources to build a large and beautiful headstone; other people were not worth remembering because they didn’t.

They lacked the financial means to erect long-lasting grave markers in their honor.”

She stated that a headstone was a luxury. In addition, it served as an anchor that held a family in place, even in the face of a violent storm.

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 brought the destruction of communal history ahead for many, including Wade.

There I watched footage of people’s ashes floating in the water, and it was the first time I saw anything like that while still in college,” Wade recalled. “‘Oh, wow.’ was the first reaction I had to that realization. As a result of the storm’s devastation, history is literally being uprooted and swept away.”

According to NPR, nearly 1,000 coffins had to be relocated owing to the hurricane, as the floodwaters had lifted the vaults. As a result of the city’s high water tables, many New Orleans cemeteries have mausoleum-style graves or shallow burial plots.

Following Hurricanes Laura in 2020 and Ida in 2021, the transportation of caskets was also an issue to deal with…

Wade’s earliest thoughts regarding the impact of weather on communities were sparked by Katrina’s devastation and the loss of family artifacts. Family heirlooms like photos, scrapbooks, letters, and recipes had been destroyed along with the roofs.

It also prompted doubts about the feasibility of reconstruction and who would stay in the wake of the destruction of sites that served as anchors for numerous communities.

“We’ve seen how New Orleans has altered since Katrina. Whether it’s for the better or the worse, it’s impossible to deny that New Orleans has changed since Hurricane Katrina “Wade spoke on the subject. As a result of Hurricane Katrina, many residents of New Orleans and the French Quarter had to flee the city.

A year after the disaster, over 175,000 Black inhabitants fled the city, and more than 75,000 never returned, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis from 2015.

However, a storm does not always necessitate the relocation of a whole household. For many families, rebuilding and staying in the same neighborhood as the cemetery where their loved ones are laid to rest is beyond their financial reach even after a single major rainstorm. On top of that, there are the resources needed to restore an old cemetery.

It’s difficult to maintain cemeteries in Houston because of flooding and because the city is frequently in the line of hurricanes, but Wade argues that individuals don’t always have the resources or “people power” to do so.

There aren’t as many graveyards being neglected as there should be, according to Wade. “In my opinion, this is an oversimplification. It’s not free. It requires time and effort. It will take some time. Even if someone has to work two or three jobs to make ends meet, it doesn’t mean that they don’t care about protecting their family cemetery.”

To preserve history and care for the ultimate resting place of a stranger, a variety of organizations ranging from upkeep and mapping to cataloging and mapping cemeteries have been formed.

At the Friends of Lebanon Cemetery (FOLC) in Lebanon (Pennsylvania), a group of volunteers works to clean burial sites and communicate with family members who previously had not had an opportunity to pay respect to the deceased because they could not locate their headstone.

Hundreds of flat stone burial monuments in the cemetery have sunk anywhere from six inches to roughly a foot because of the rain.

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In the fall of 2021, AccuWeather National Reporter Sarah Gisriel spoke with a volunteer who said that if the drainage systems under some of the markers worked well through the winter, they would return in the spring to add to the system.

An urban planning professor at Texas A&M University, Dr. Andrea Roberts, is leading the Texas Freedom Colonies Project, which aims to “promote the preservation of Black settlement landscapes, legacy, and grassroots preservation methods through study.”

The Texas African American Cemetery Registry, a volunteer database of Black burial places in the state, has been a part of this effort.

The federal government has also become involved in efforts to protect and catalog historic sites.

Re-introducing the African American Burial Grounds Network Act, which would establish a new government program to conserve historic African American burial grounds and offer federal support to maintain burial sites for future generations, will be Sherrod Brown’s first priority this year.

New old Black cemeteries are being uncovered beneath the infrastructure of growing cities, prompting the introduction of this Act.

Freedman Cemetery in Dallas was paved over by the North Central Expressway during this time period.

It was alleged that in the past, cemeteries were covered over and headstones were utilized as rubble to fill ditches and low spots, according to a Dallas Observer columnist quoted in 1999.

While this is a common occurrence in the 19th and 20th centuries, it is not unique.

The Boyde Carter Cemetery in Jefferson County, West Virginia, is believed to contain the graves of people who were enslaved and have the traditional African American burial ground characteristics of yucca, daffodils, lilies, and rose bushes marking graves.

In 2019, concerns grew that nearby industrial construction projects could impact the cemetery’s outskirts. Erroneously drawn property lines and a darkened area that suggested a cemetery were shown on project maps as much smaller than they are in reality.

When it comes to caring for family graveyards in Houston, the city’s growth is still a major factor. For example, Wade mentioned that in Houston, some neighborhoods have been razed and others have been displaced by freeway construction.

Economic shifts are forcing families who have lived in places like Houston’s Inner Circle or the area inside I-610’s loop for decades to leave their homes and leave their family cemetery behind.

“What happens to a little cemetery if the individuals who established it are now miles away?” Wade inquired. Forgotten cemeteries are a direct result of a city’s growth and economic shifts, as the individuals who cared about them are no longer in the immediate vicinity of these places.

In Mt. Olive Cemetery, a four-acre tract near Jackson State University east of the Mississippi city, Port Gibson, Miss., resident Milton J. Chambliss was clearing grass from a grave of a relative Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017. While growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, Chambliss witnessed the deplorable state of the city’s graveyards. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

A record of racial segregation even after death has been uncovered beneath parking lots, building complexes, and motorways in the form of burial sites. Weather plays a significant impact in cemetery destruction, and infrastructure and development go hand in hand.

“Preservation at the Intersections: Patterns of Disproportionate Multihazard Risk and Vulnerability in Louisiana’s Historic African American Cemeteries,” a 2021 study, compared the risk and vulnerability of historic African American cemeteries in southern Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” to the risk and vulnerability of other cemeteries in the area.

According to their racial composition, placement in the 100-year or 500-year floodplain, and proximity to a chemical facility, the authors analyzed the graveyards in St. James and Ascension parishes.

Black cemeteries were discovered to be disproportionately positioned in flood-prone areas, and eight of the known Black cemeteries were found within a 2-mile radius of one or two of these facilities, making it difficult for visitors to preserve graves of family members who had died in the event of floods.

There were no white cemeteries within a certain distance of any plant.

“Post-disaster impacts, such as flooding, are exacerbated by land use plans and planning cultures that encourage plants to be located near primarily African American populations and community anchors,” the scientists stated.

Using the information gathered, they advised the state to subsidize grassroots groups of locals who may contribute to the documentation of local cemeteries in state historical cemetery databases.

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Advocacy groups might then engage with state agencies and parish land-use planners to assist document the cemeteries and preserving them at a safe distance from plants.

She warns against construction without considering climate change and its long-term effects as part of conserving the past while also planning for the future, and this is where Wade comes in. When it comes to maintaining cemeteries, tackling just one issue won’t be enough.

Wade argued that “all of these concerns are intertwined.” There isn’t simply one thing to fix these issues, which has been abundantly clear through this project.

However, she said that even if climate change could be completely handled, that alone would not solve the problem of income inequality or the lack of affordable housing.

Volunteering to maintain and catalog cemeteries before they are lost to history is one way that people at the local level may make a difference.

Wade stated, “We can all do something tiny to help.”

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