Maggie Walker, one of the first Black American women to run a bank, is buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Richmond, Va. So is John Mitchell Jr., editor of the Richmond Planet, a crusading newspaper founded by former slaves. Benjamin Franklin Randolph, a South Carolina state senator gunned down amid the white backlash against Reconstruction in 1868, lies in the Black cemetery named for him in Columbia.
In the late 19th century, as statues, monuments and government buildings were being dedicated to Robert E. Lee and other leaders of the Confederacy, a powerful and countervailing force of memory was unfolding, in many cases right across town: Black communities were building cemeteries to honor a first wave of soldiers, politicians and business leaders after the end of slavery.
Now, as Americans rethink Confederate monuments across the country, historians and community activists are working to restore and protect historic Black cemeteries, many of which have fallen into disrepair, the victims of mismanagement, political strife or abandonment.
"You have monuments to Black Southerners and monuments to white Southerners, and you can't understand one without understanding the other," said Ryan Smith, a professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University. "The humanity expressed in the cemeteries was an answer to the Lost Cause/New South efforts to excise African American history."
The Rev. Leroy Williams is on the front lines of the struggle to save one of these places, called Magnolia Cemetery, in eastern Arkansas. Wild boars and snakes make it hazardous in the hilly, wooded portion of the cemetery, established after the Civil War. Williams, who is 76 — 50 of those years spent behind the pulpit of local Baptist churches — worries about what will happen when he is gone.
Black people fled his corner of the South for decades to escape racial prejudice, he said, or for better jobs and education, and he now looks after the 36-acre cemetery pretty much by himself.
"They just leave, and they don't come back," Williams said. "I'm the lone ranger."
In Columbia, three words sum up the plight of Randolph Cemetery: "Out of money," said Staci Richey, who came as a volunteer years ago and never left.
The debate over how to remember Lee and other Southern icons has exposed a raw scar in American society. But many Black cemeteries — established as statements of pride but also out of necessity in segregated times — are deeply scarred themselves, starved for money and marred in many cases by vandalism, the encroachment of nature and feuds over how to preserve them.
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. A bill introduced in the Senate last year would require the National Park Service to begin building a database and network of where the old burial grounds are or were.
Viola Baskerville's great-grandmother, Jane Gentry Johnson, who was born a slave in about 1840 and died around World War I, is buried in Evergreen in Richmond, although after 15 years of searching, Baskerville has still not found the grave. For the former state legislator, the ultimate question is whether the stories are remembered from what she called "freedom's first generation."
"We put up these Confederate monuments in public squares as a homage to a lost cause that was really a lie," she said. "But the real builders of the cities and the states and the nation, their narrative is still not told."