By Dr. Haile Eshe Cole
In numerous cities across the nation, the condition of African-American cemeteries is a growing issue that communities are attempting to address. Neglected, overgrown, hidden, and abandoned have become their unfortunate depiction. In fact, a Virginia preservation group listed African-American cemeteries as one of the “most endangered historic places.” The residue of segregation and historic racial discrimination can, in part, be held responsible for the erased histories and failed upkeep of black cemeteries. Yet, there are many who refuse to let these historic sites become completely forgotten.
Efforts to commemorate, clean, and maintain African-American cemeteries are taking off across the nation. In the recent news, states such as Virginia, Florida, Georgia, and Texas, to name a few, have been recognized for their efforts to save these cemeteries. In addition to the emotional and familial ties to these places, preservation organizations and communities at large are also acknowledging their historic and cultural significance. On the one hand, there is the issue of the absence and erasure of African-American culture and history from the written historical record. On the other hand, we have contemporary economic, political, and social shifts occurring that increasingly displace African-American families from historically black neighborhoods. This being the case, African-American cemeteries then, become important locales of historic and cultural memory, and key sites in which their maintenance and existence become mechanisms to (re)claim black space. This is an important piece to all of the efforts to preserve African-American cemeteries but is also important right here in Austin, TX.
With the changing demographic shifts in Austin, and the declining numbers of black residents, remembering the rich history of black East Austin remains increasingly important. Six Square: Austin’s Black Cultural District seeks to not only contribute to these national efforts to preserve African-American cemeteries with their upcoming “Homecoming” event, but also calls residents to remember the legacies of black East Austin and return home to celebrate these memories.
The Homecoming is a two-part event. The first part scheduled for November 4 will include a symposium with key scholars focusing on sacred burial places and African-American cemeteries. This event is scheduled to be held on the campus of Hustin-Tillotson University. The second part of the event, schedule to be held mid-to-late Spring, will include the ritual and physical cleaning of both Plummers and Bethany cemeteries and continues with a processional, concert, and “family reunion” picnic in Givens Park.
To those families and individuals who have left Austin, “Homecoming” offers an opportunity to come home to their cultural touchstone. To all, this event provides a space to help maintain significant historic and cultural sites and to honor and commemorate the rich legacies of black East Austinites. Although this is not the first community event aimed at maintaining the local black cemeteries, it is another opportunity in the wake of a rapidly changing East Austin, to be a part of a community that collectively asserts that locally, African-African sacred grounds will neither be abandoned nor forgotten.
For more information on this event or to help with the planning, please contact Donald King at email@example.com. Families and friends with loved ones laid to rest at Bethany or Plummers cemetery are also welcome to submit pictures or stories to be honored during the event. Please submit photos to firstname.lastname@example.org.