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Black cemeteries left in disrepair reflect years of segregation

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

The Westview Community Cemetery is the final resting place for some of South Florida's pioneering Black families, but the graves and the land have not been maintained. Neither have proper burial records. Experts say it's an example of the far-reaching effects of segregation. WLRN's Gerard Albert III has this report.

GERARD ALBERT III, BYLINE: Elijah Wooten walks off the paved road and steps past rows of damaged and unmarked graves at the Westview Community Cemetery. He stops at a group of polished granite vaults, all inscribed with his last name.

ELIJAH WOOTEN: Mother, father, two brothers.

ALBERT: How often do you come by?

WOOTEN: Every day. I've been out here this morning.

ALBERT: The 91-year-old used to serve on the cemetery's board of trustees. Now he picks up plastic bottles and scraps of cardboard littering the cemetery on his daily walks.

WOOTEN: And that's what the community was doing when I was on the board.

ALBERT: The Westview Community Cemetery is a 15-acre plot of land in Broward County, Florida. Some of the area's pioneering Black families are buried here, including Esther Rolle, known for her role as Florida Evans on the television series "Good Times." Still, the cemetery has fallen into a state of disrepair as a legal battle over who should run the cemetery makes its way through court. Most headstones, if they exist, are split or crumbling. In one case, a vault is cracked so badly that the casket underneath is exposed to the harsh rain and sun of South Florida.

ANTOINETTE JACKSON: That cemetery is an example of what happens when this has been a continual tension of trying to maintain a cemetery with limited resources.

ALBERT: Antoinette Jackson is the chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of South Florida.

JACKSON: All those layers of things that they're dealing with underscore the systemic nature of what segregation often meant to Black cemeteries and Black communities.

ALBERT: Jackson also runs the Black Cemetery Network, an online community that works to preserve archives and physical sites of Black cemeteries across the country.

JACKSON: The big, big 1000-foot level is the preservation of history and the comprehensive understanding of communities, which come with acknowledgment that these cemeteries and these communities were there and sometimes are still there.

ALBERT: Ramona La Roche works to archive genealogies in Black cemeteries throughout the South. She was part of a push to preserve the remains of 31 people buried under an auditorium in Charleston.

RAMONA LA ROCHE: They initially wanted to place the bones at another Black church. The community protested.

ALBERT: Ultimately, the bones were buried back in the spot where they were found.

LA ROCHE: And we actually put each other remains in its own separate small box. And then they were put in one coffin, and then we reinterred it.

ALBERT: La Roche says the city of Charleston paid for the burial celebration. In Florida, cities like Tampa and Deerfield Beach have bought back properties from developers who discovered human remains on the land. A new Florida law created a Historic Cemeteries Advisory Council and provided over $1 million for organizations to buy land where remains were found. Progress has been slower on the federal level, where the African American Burial Grounds Preservation Act has been introduced in the Senate. As for Wooten, his fight to preserve his family's graves at Westview continues.

WOOTEN: I've been doing this for the last - what? - two years, 2 1/2 years now.

ALBERT: Just picking up garbage and picking up stuff...

WOOTEN: Anything can be done that I can do to make the place look better, I do.

ALBERT: For NPR News, I'm Gerard Albert III in Fort Lauderdale. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gerard Albert III