Death Divided

I love strolling through cemeteries – the older and more overgrown, the better, of course. I’m not particularly ghoulish, though. I just enjoy the underlying history that cemeteries provide. Some of that history is relayed in tomb stones and monuments. Often, however, the history is contained beneath more subtle contexts: the layout of the stones, the level of ruin within the cemetery, the innocuous placing of a fence…

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See that fence in the background? It denotes the racial divide at Pleasant Grove Cemetery in Ladonia, Fannin County, Texas.

… that’s right – the South, which my website Red River Historian documents, still contains the remnants of segregation inside many of its cemeteries. Because even in death, the powers that be insisted that races had to remain separated.

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The cemetery in the ghost town of Cannon (Grayson County, Texas) became segregated after the Civil War. The segregation was denoted through a road that divided the two burial grounds, which is visible in the background. Before the war, enslaved people were sometimes interred with their white masters, but their graves were marked with wooden stakes. After the war, the first African American burials were also marked with wooden markers.

In the pre-Civil War period, segregated burial places were not needed, as blacks – most of whom were enslaved – were either buried without so much as a tomb stone, or were interred amongst their masters. There were some designated “slave cemeteries” in a few select locations – such as near large plantations or in the cities – but most of these burial places are no longer visible, as time, neglect, and outright disrespect have taken their toll on them.

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A wooden marker, most likely for an enlsaved person, at Kentuckytown Cemetery (Grayson County, Texas).

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This enslaved woman was interred with the white family at Vittetoe Cemetery (Grayson County). However, her tomb does not commemorate her name – it simply denotes what she was to those who owned her.

The few free people of color often confined their cemeteries within their church yards, such as St. Augustine Church near Natchitoches, Louisiana.

st augustine church grave

A brick tomb at St. Augustine Church cemetery, which was founded by Creole families in the early 19th century, in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana.

In the period after the Civil War, which historians call “reconstruction,” Southern whites were unwilling to see their former slaves as equals. Cities and communities set aside portions of burial grounds for blacks, but these “Negro Cemeteries” (often deemed “Freedman Cemeteries”) were completely separated, usually by fences, or hedges, or pathways. With little money for upkeep and many African American families leaving the South due to racial violence and economic discrimination, their cemeteries became less maintained. Eventually, many of these boneyards were razed by construction projects or were just simply ignored.

Dallas Greenwood Cemetery Sanborn

The “Negro Cemetery” near Central Expressway in the State-Thomas area of Dallas was bulldozed in the 1960s to make way for the expansion of US 75.

History is lost this way. Of course, that may have been the reason behind the neglect and disregard.

Yet, especially in smaller communities, the “Negro Cemeteries” are still extant and active. Black cemeteries are extremely interesting to me, as their very existence lends an aura of defiance against the southern U.S. social structure. Though the tombs may not be as elaborate as those designed for affluent whites, black graves are just as loud – they serve as the final and eternal stamp on the world, indicating that the person buried there mattered as much as any other man or woman.

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While simple, this grave of a black man in Tatums, Carter County, Oklahoma, makes sure to commemorate the person interred within. Tatums is one of Oklahoma’s historical all-black towns.

I plan on visiting and documenting many more black cemeteries. The southern, segregated graveyard is a fascinating aspect of history that tells a lot about not only the people interred there, but about the community in which they’re buried.

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Louisiana Respect

Texas is a big state. It’s also my birthplace and the birthplace of my dad, so of course I feel affinity for it… sometimes. It’s also a place with a LOT OF hot air circulating around – or rather, hot airbags. But you know I love you, Texas.

With that being said (and bracing for the pounding I might receive in written form later on), I am going to go on a limb to claim that if you want to visit a whole ‘nother country, it really isn’t Texas – it’s Louisiana.

Ouch! Don’t hit.

Texas may have been the birthplace of Bonnie and Clyde, but they died in Louisiana - near Gibsland, to be exact, where I met this really cool guy and his eclectic collection of antiques that he's not willing to sell.

Texas may have been the birthplace of Bonnie and Clyde, but they died in Louisiana – near Gibsland, to be exact, where I met this really cool guy and his eclectic collection of antiques that he’s not willing to sell.

I mean, just look at Louisianan diversity. They don’t have counties, they have parishes. Their Mardi-Gras is a unique blend of Catholicism, Carnival, Fasching, and Santeria. The mighty Mississippi forms its delta here, for gosh’s sakes.

And check out those who’ve made their homes in LA. The original inhabitants were the Caddos, Natchez, Coushattas, Chickasaws and Choctaws, all of whom built large tiered cities and a sophisticated farming and trading system. Later, the creoles emerged, people of mixed Spanish, French, Native, Caribbean, and African descent who, to this day, populate the Red River. Then there are beautiful places like Natchitoches and the French Quarter, whose buildings mirror Spanish architectural styles in a New World colonial layout (it’s mostly not French construction – after the French Quarter burned down, the Spanish, who controlled New France from 1763 until 1798, rebuilt it using brick and stone). The Cajuns stem from displaced French Canadians (Acadians), who were kicked out of said colony by the British and found their way to southwestern Louisianne, with their unique brand of French and their willingness to adapt their cuisine to native flora and fauna. People of African descent, mostly former slaves, built thriving towns, churches, schools, and businesses under strained circumstances, as it was Plessy v. Ferguson – which established the “separate but equal” doctrine – that began in Louisiana courts. The Germans brought their industry and Christmas customs with them, as did the English with their protestant and free-market ways. The Italians introduced some wonderful foods to Louisiana’s palate – Shreveport once had Italian delis and bakeries all over downtown. Today, large immigrant groups from Mexico, Laos, Burma, Vietnam, and India have made this state into a true melting pot of world cultures.

Louisiana does not just have haunted plantation, but haunted towers, too.

Louisiana does not just have haunted plantations, but haunted towers, too.

And where else can you take a picture of a bridge in downtown Shreveport, right next to gaudy casinos, and realize that it was not an old bicycle seat sticking out from the bayou muck, but an alligator’s head?

I know that Texas compares just as much. After all, SIX flags flew over Texas (although I still don’t buy the French claim to Texas, as La Salle’s colony was pretty much a failed usurpation and New Spain never recognized French claims south of the Red River west of the Great Bend). But Texas doesn’t have Natchitoches meat pies. Or beignets. Or Civil War battle sites.

Vive la Louisianne! Okay, okay, and viva Tejas.

And where else but Louisiana can you find a triangular truss bridge?

And where else but Louisiana can you find a triangular truss bridge?

Additions to My Site = More to Explore!

Abandoned Store in Hutchinson

This old plantation store between Shreveport and Natchitoches, Louisiana, is where sharecroppers, who were paid with scrip, would buy what they needed from the plantation owner.

I’ve always meant to add information on Lousiana and Arkansas to my site, but time constraints have never allowed me sufficient time to explore those areas as much as I wanted. Which is funny, because most of my family lives in eastern Texas and Louisiana.

I decided that this year, I will include Louisiana and Arkansas into the “fold” – after all, my site is called Red River Historian. And the river certainly runs through those states, too! The Red River has a real presence in Louisiana’s history, and althogh my focus has been on western history, I’ve made the committment (and it wasn’t hard to committ, anyway) to learn and discover more about southern history.

It’s strange how until recently, the history of the US South has not been a big interest of mine. I think it stems from the proliferation of histories that deal with the South. The South is arguably the most-studied region in US history, especially the antebellum and Civil War periods, and somtimes it’s hard to wrap my head around it. I’m not a big Civil War fan, so I will continue to “gloss over” the war except when necessary, but I am interested in the periods of Americanization after the Louisiana Purchase.  So this is good news… it means I have a lot more exciting things to discover!

Published in: on April 5, 2008 at 3:31 pm  Comments (3)  
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