This page was created by Desiree S Evans.  The last update was by David Squires.

Keys to the Archive: A Gathering of Old Men

Black Cemetery

By Desiree S. Evans

The Situation of the Black Cemetery in the United States

Throughout much of African-American history in the United States, segregation was a mainstay of existence. This included segregated Black cemeteries, which were often located far from public view, in heavily wooded areas, and away from white resting places (Gaffney). In the antebellum South, enslaved Africans were frequently buried in communal plots, sometimes on the outskirts of plantations and sometimes in clearings in dense forests (Jones). These cemeteries were usually not documented on local and state government maps and many graves were unmarked. Even after slavery ended, many municipalities did not build cemeteries for their Black populations. Instead African Americans had to rely on churches and families to fund cemeteries and their on-going maintenance. 

A huge cultural shift happened between 1915 and 1970, when more than six million African Americans fled the violence of the South in the Great Migration (Johnson). During this time many families and their descendant communities were separated, weakening ties to old family plots. As a result many Black graveyards were left without family caretakers. Many of these cemeteries fell into disrepair with the passage of time. Underfunded, neglected, and forgotten, some vanished forever (Johnson). 

Today the remaining African-American cemeteries from the 19th and early 20th centuries are facing a widespread crisis across the United States. While some have fallen into disrepair, urban redevelopment and other construction projects have demolished many others. According to The New York Times, “no firm accounting exists of how many Black cemeteries there are, or how many have disappeared to urban development and highway construction, but historians say that in the flowering of Black life after Emancipation, just about every community in the South had at least one” (Johnson). With these cemeteries vanishing, we are losing an important part of African-American history. 

Preservation activists across the country are in a race against time to preserve African-American cemeteries, with volunteers and nonprofit organizations stepping in to memorialize these sacred burial spaces when state and local governments have been slow to react. For instance, in Virginia, the all-volunteer Friends of the East End Cemetery worked to reclaim the historic African-American East End Cemetery, which was founded in 1897 (Gaffney). It had been almost entirely overgrown and in a state of disrepair before cleanup efforts started in 2013 (Gaffney). 

Here in Louisiana, local genealogist and preservation activist Debbie Martin mapped “more than 3,000 burials of Black people in nearly 30 cemeteries” in West Baton Rouge Parish by 2017, with most of these neglected cemeteries hidden in secluded woods near sugarcane fields (Jones). Martin also started a nonprofit called the Westside Cemetery Preservation Association, which had some success in the Louisiana Legislature, helping pass a bill in 2018 that created the Slavery Ancestral Burial Grounds Preservation Commission (Ulkins).

The work of activists on the ground has also inspired action nationally. In 2019 legislation was introduced in Congress that could bring some protection to Black burial grounds. If passed, the legislation would create a voluntary national network of historic African-American cemeteries (the African American Burial Grounds Network) to be housed under the National Park Service and provide support and grants to aid with documentation and restoration of Black cemeteries (Gaffney). 

The Role of the Black Cemetery in A Gathering of Old Men

In A Gathering of Old Men, a pivotal scene in the novel takes place in the Black graveyard located on the Marshall plantation. In the chapter entitled “Grant Bello aka Cherry,” the elderly Black men have gathered in the graveyard before they plan to head back to Mathu’s place to make their stand against the system of oppression that has subjugated them their entire lives. The old Black graveyard holds the remains of the enslaved Africans and Black sharecroppers who had worked the land at Marshall Plantation for generations. The graveyard is surrounded by the cane fields, and it is overgrown with weeds and knee-high grass. Many of the graves are unmarked, some sinking into the soil.

The cemetery, as the representation of historical and ancestral memory in the novel, functions as a catalyst for the old men’s final stand. In this scene, the men wait together in a graveyard that, as Cherry notes, had “been the burial ground for Black folks ever since the time of slavery” (44). Here they are able to clean off the graves, to tell stories, to remember, and to reconnect with their ancestors. This moment of connection is important as they are about to do something they have never done before: stand up to the dominant system of white supremacy that had oppressed them for so long. They are standing up for themselves, and for their ancestors. 

In one of the earlier typescript drafts of this scene (included below), you can see how some of the small shifts Gaines makes in his edits in establishing the connection between the men and the cemetery. In the earlier typescript draft Cherry originally says to Dirty Red in regards to their ancestors buried in the graveyard: “We got plenty of them in there. This where you want to be buried when you die?” In the final published version of the scene, the dialogue was changed to Cherry saying, “You got plenty of us in here. This where you want them to bring you?" (46). In both versions Cherry is including himself as part of this community of ancestors, locating himself and all the old men as part of the wider lineage of the cemetery. The published version minimizes the distinction between the living and the dead. Cherry and Dirty Red are the living workers of the land who will one day also be buried here with their people.

In A Gathering of Old Men, the cemetery also represents the many ways Black history can be lost to time. A looming threat surrounds the sacred space of the Black graveyard, due to the increased mechanization of sugarcane production: one day the graves could be plowed away by the Cajuns who lease the land. There is a moment in the novel when Cherry mentions the precarity of the graveyard’s existence, saying, “They getting rid of these old graveyards more and more... These white folks coming up today don’t have no respect for the dead” (47).

In the above typescript excerpt there is an earlier version of this dialogue, in which Cherry’s line simply reads: “They chopping up a lot of the old graveyards.” In the final published version Gaines has provided more of an indictment of the white power structure in relation to the graveyard’s possible future destruction. The use of words like “getting rid of” and “no respect for the dead” offers a deeper sense of the violence that comes with ideas around Black people’s disposability. The reader gets a sense that even in death, the Black populace could be disrespected and violated, the tractors plowing over the graves and leaving no trace that this Black community ever existed. The threat of an uncaring white populace plowing over the graveyard is referenced more than once in the book, to suggest a possible desecration of the Black dead and an erasure of their existence.

In the chapter entitled “Joseph Seaberry aka Rufe,” Johnny Paul offers a moving monologue that explicitly centers the idea of preserving what remains of the Black contribution to the land and protecting the surviving community. When explaining why he decided to make his stand (to "kill" Beau), Johnny Paul says: “I did it for them back there under them trees. I did it ‘cause that tractor is getting closer and closer to that graveyard, and I was scared if I didn't do it, one day that tractor was go’n come in there and plow up them graves, getting rid of all proof that we ever was” (92). In emphasizing the precariousness of the graveyard, Johnny Paul is not only voicing the fear of Black history's erasure, but also the fear of losing even more of his community. 

Gaines’ Real-Life Inspiration: Mount Zion Cemetery

The cemetery in A Gathering of Old Men is based on the once-neglected Black cemetery where Gaines and many of his ancestors were laid to rest––the cemetery at Riverlake Plantation in Oscar, LA. Surrounded by cane fields, Mount Zion Riverlake Cemetery sits on an acre of land behind Riverlake Plantation in what was once the Cherie Quarters, the community where the enslaved Africans and the Black sharecroppers that farmed sugarcane for generations on the plantation once lived. Many of those generations are now buried in the cemetery. 

Gaines often visited the cemetery in his trips back to Louisiana in the 1960s, although back then the plot of land had been overtaken with weeds and untended. Many of the graves were unmarked, similar to the graveyard in the novel. Gaines cared deeply about the cemetery and the people buried there, and he often worried about the cemetery being plowed over due to the increased mechanization of the land, something reflected in Johnny Paul’s monologue in A Gathering of Old Men. Gaines wrote his concerns for the disappearance of rural Black cemeteries into his novels, where he also attempted to preserve the memory of the Black people who worked the fields and made a life for themselves in rural Louisiana. 

Gaines would dedicate many of his later years to preserving the Mount Zion Cemetery and honoring the memory of those interred in the graveyard. In the late 1990s, Gaines and his wife Dianne formed a nonprofit called the Mount Zion River Lake Cemetery Association, which has spent years identifying the graves and working to preserve the graveyard. Each year on the Saturday before All Saints’ Day, visitors gather in the cemetery for a beautification day. Similarly to the old men in A Gathering of Old Men, people are able to clean the graves, to reminisce, and to honor those who once worked the land.

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