Living residents of Waco, Texas, know that it has been a racially integrated city for decades.
But for those who are dead, the Jim Crow segregation that plagued much of the South until the 1960s is very much alive in one of the city’s historic cemeteries.
For as long as Greenwood Cemetery has been around, the grounds have been divided between graves for whites and blacks, with each side demarcated by separate entrances and a quarter-mile of chain-link fence, according to the Waco Tribune-Herald.
Established in 1875, the cemetery is home to thousands of graves, including Union and Confederate soldiers, several War of 1812 veterans, a National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee, business leaders and a famous Broadway star, according to the paper.
Yet no matter their accomplishments in life, in death their final resting place is determined by the color of their skin. The absurdity of the cemetery’s segregating fence has been a topic of conversation for decades, as Annie Randle, a leader of the People’s Cemetery Association, told the Tribune-Herald in 1971.
Oddly enough, the paper noted, nobody seems to know the origin of the fence. “I suppose they wanted that so the black ghosts wouldn’t go over there and bother the white ghosts,” Randle told the newspaper.
In addition to being an inconvenience for visitors, mowing crews have to exit onto surrounding streets to get from one side of the cemetery to the other. Local leaders consider the racially divisive resting place an embarrassment.
“That should have been taken out 75 years ago,” Councilman Wilbert Austin, whose district includes the cemetery, told the paper in 2014. “There was a separation there, but now we need to open that whole cemetery up.”
Over the years, the black side of the cemetery has fallen into disrepair. It’s a problem repeated in segregated cemeteries across the southern United States, where historic black graves sink into anonymity as headstones deteriorate and thick undergrowth takes over, according to USA Today.
Michael Trinkley is director of the Chicora Foundation, a Columbia, South Carolina-based, nonprofit heritage group that works on cemetery preservation in the southeastern United States. He told the paper that the black graves are often forgotten.
According to the paper:
“In many instances, African-American cemeteries in the South were started by small associations of a dozen or so black community leaders around the turn of the century. As those people died off, and as 6 million black people moved North during the Great Migration of 1910-70, ownership of the cemeteries became muddled, Trinkley says.”
Georgia state law, for example, does not require local governments to maintain abandoned cemeteries, according to USA Today. Maintaining cemeteries is an expensive task, Trinkley said, and local governments have no incentive to care for plots of land that provide no tax revenue.
“Counties frequently don’t know who owns cemeteries,” he told the paper. “They had no reason to tax them, because they can’t collect taxes off them, so they had no reason to keep up with ownership. Cemeteries are like any other historic resource. They have to have a constituency.”
Trinkley gave the paper several examples of how local black communities have dealt with deteriorating cemeteries:
In Columbia, South Carolina, black state legislators got a onetime, $300,000 state grant to care for Randolph Cemetery, started in downtown Columbia in 1872 by a group of black legislators and businessmen. It was the city’s first cemetery for African Americans but eventually fell into neglect.
Portsmouth, Virginia, is taking steps to consolidate four essentially abandoned African-American cemeteries – Mount Calvary, Mount Olive, Fisher’s and Potter’s Field – under city ownership. The cemeteries were begun between 1879 and 1894 and have been abandoned since at least the early 1960s.
Thomasville, Ga., takes care of both its white cemetery, the Old Cemetery, and its black one, Flipper Cemetery, “in a very equal, even-handed fashion,” Trinkley says.
The situation is echoed in Waco, where the city took over mowing the black side of the cemetery in 2007 after associations in charge of maintenance began to disappear, according to the Tribune-Herald. For most of the cemetery’s existence, separate volunteer organizations – divided by skin color – have maintained their respective grounds “with a small contribution from the city,” the paper said.
Ownership is even more complicated. The city founded the cemetery, but portions of the site are owned by the county, and still others are owned by private individuals who long ago abandoned maintenance. Greenwood Vice President Robert Nussman, who has helped to maintain the cemetery over the years, told the paper that he estimated half of the graves in the cemetery are unmarked.
Maintaining an aging cemetery is hard work, the 83-year-old noted.
“Everybody’s getting old, members are dying off, and the money’s not coming in to take care of it,” Nussman said. “We agreed to go ahead and let the city take it over and take the fence down. We’ve already mowed it six times this year. … You’re talking about $400 for every mowing.”
While private citizens struggle to maintain the grounds, the city of Waco is moving forward with a plan to remove the fence separating black from white next week, the Tribune-Herald said. The galvanized-steel chain-link material will be recycled, but the heavy posts will take longer because an archaeologist will need to make sure unmarked graves are not disturbed, the paper reported.
“We’d like something nicer than chain link,” city park planner Tom Balk told the paper, noting that an effort to re-fence the cemetery and create a new entryway will cost as much as $300,000.
County Commissioner Lester Gibson told the paper that it’s about time the city removed the disturbing traces of racial segregation.
“I think it’s a positive move,” he said. “It unifies that area into one cemetery. I can understand the division back in that day, but we’ve moved forward since that time. It’s one cemetery. When you’re dead, you’re gone. There’s no color out there, just a whole cemetery that needs to be protected.”