Greensville County, Virginia: When African American cemetery symbolism was ridiculed and denied (1908)

Greensville County, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, 2019. All rights reserved.

Southern superstition – Some of the Pathetic Evidences of It Found in Negro Cemeteries

One is first convulsed with laughter and then overcome with pity when he or she visits a negro cemetery of the real down-South variety.

The tombstones are mostly home-made, with inscriptions home-made also, the most of which are supposed to be poetry. Either the graves are wholly neglected or decorated as uniquely and gorgeously as possible.

In a little negro cemetery in Northern Alabama I found a grave boxed about with twelve-inch planks painted sky blue, and filled in with shells, bits of broken, highly colored glass, and glistening stones. Another was bordered around with soda-pop bottles, stuck neck downward in the ground, just as the colored people are wont to outline their flower beds. If the bottles can be alternately green and yellow glass, it is considered more artistic.

A third grave was surrounded by medicine bottles, bottles which had probably been emptied by the brother who had “ceased” in his vain attempt to get well. As each bore the doctor’s names and prescription, still plainly readable, this was rather a bad advertisement for somebody. The next lot was scraped and swept as smooth as a table, and decorated merely by a beer bottle at each corner. This, I presume, was elegant simplicity.

Upon nearly every grave is a broken pitcher and lamp, the latter to light the way through “the valley of the shadow,” as the negroes believe, and the other to illustrate the Scripture concerning the “pitcher broken at the fountain.” A friend who is familiar with negro superstitions declares they usually place a penny upon the grave to pay the fare across the river, and also leave a crust of bread for the comfort of the dear departed. As one grave bore a student’s lamp upon it, I at once concluded that it contained the bones of some ‘scholah’ from Tuskegee.

One common and pathetic custom is to leave upon a child’s grave any toy or trinket that it valued, and also a cup or plate, or anything that had been the special property. These are never stolen, however coveted, as the most hardened thief is too superstitious to take from the dead.

Thus on every side there are evidences of the most painstaking care, the pitiful attempt to make something beautiful out of nothing, to do honor to the dead. And perhaps, alas, to atone for past neglect. But in spite of a tender heart one must laugh over such inscriptions as this:

‘Sweet It lived/And precious it died/Left Its mother/And fled to the Skyes.’

Then as each crudely carved letter tells of a world of effort, and the blurs and blotches speak for themselves, the pity of it strikes the laughter dumb, and hangs a tear upon the lashes before one knows it. Surely the angels who care for ‘God’s Acre’ must often smile sorrowfully over the childish fancies and superstitions of the ignorant, emotional negroes.1

  1. The Washington Post (Washington, District of Columbia), 25 February 1908, p. 9, col. 8; image copy, ( accessed 17 December 2019)

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