Endangered African American Historic Sites
Olivewood Cemetery - Houston, Texas
Incorporated in 1875, Olivewood Cemetery in Houston, Texas, is one of the oldest-known platted African American cemeteries in Houston, with more than 4,000 burials on its 7.5-acre site. The final resting place of many notable figures in Houston's early African American community and of formerly enslaved Africans, this Texas Historic Cemetery and UNESCO Site of Memory for the Slave Route Project also illustrates unique African American burial practices developed in pre-Emancipation Black communities, including upright pipes as grave features, the use of ocean shells as grave ornaments, and upside-down or inverted text.
Over time, changing demographics and increased development led to the cemetery's decline and abandonment. Decades of neglect, vandalism, uncontrolled invasive vegetation, and the occasional use of the cemetery as an illegal dumping ground took their toll. But the most persistent threat is the impact of extreme weather events due to climate change. Historic gravesites are being damaged and even lost entirely due to extreme precipitation events that cause erosion as uncontrolled run-off and greater volumes of water move at higher speeds through the bayou adjacent to the cemetery.
The nonprofit Descendants of Olivewood, Inc. formed in 2003 to restore and maintain the cemetery and now has legal guardianship. With the support of an African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund grant in 2021, the organization has undertaken a comprehensive study to clarify the extent of the threat from flooding and erosion, and identify specific protection and mitigation measures, but advocates will need partnerships and funding in order to implement these plans.
Threatt Filling Station - Luther, Oklahoma
The Threatt family homesteaded in the Luther area, a part of modern-day Oklahoma that was opened to United States settlement in 1889, after the Federal system of American Indian reservations and land allotments had been established. Like many African Americans at the time, the Threatts saw Oklahoma land as a great opportunity. They joined former slaves of local Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole owners, as well as former slaves from the southeast, in seeking greater security, economic opportunity, and racial solidarity in Oklahoma. The Threatt family raised crops on their farm, sold sandstone from their quarry, and, ultimately, opened and ran the filling station.
The filling station benefited from its proximity to Route 66. State Highway 7 formed the northern border of the Threatt farm, and as traffic on the road increased during the early decades of the 20th-century, Route 66's local alignment incorporated Highway 7. Allen Threatt made a sensible business decision to take advantage of the farm's location and open the filling station.
From the mid 1910s through the 1950s, the Threatt Filling Station was a popular roadside stop for locals and travelers alike. The station was one of a very few places on Route 66 where people of color were welcome during an age when African American children setting out on trips asked their parents why they needed to carry so much food and water, as well as toilet paper and empty jars. Black adults growing up along Route 66 in Chicago just "knew which stretches they weren't allowed to use."
Morningstar Tabernacle No. 88 Order of Moses Cemetery and Hall - John Cabin, Maryland
In 1880, the formerly enslaved couple Robert and Sarah Gibson bought property on what is now Seven Locks Road in Cabin John, Maryland. By 1895 nine other black families had joined them in buying land here. Together these families built a self-reliant settlement, called Gibson Grove, later just No. 10.
In 1882, the community organized the first black school in the district. In 1885, it established Morningstar Tabernacle No. 88 of the Order of Moses. This benevolent society helped members in times of need and in death. Its Moses Hall and Cemetery were adjacent to each other. By the 1880s the community was on the church circuit; in 1898 Sarah Gibson gave land to formally establish the Gibson Grove AME Zion Church. The school for the local black children never had a dedicated building; it was alternatively housed in the church and the Moses Hall lodge.
The Moses Hall foundation in Cabin John is the last known surviving remnant of an Order of Moses hall in Montgomery County.
Sarah E. Ray House - Detroit, Michigan
In 1945, over a decade before Rosa Parks famously defied Jim Crow segregation laws, another Black woman in Detroit, Michigan won an important case in the United States Supreme Court. Because of her race, Sarah Elizabeth Ray had been denied passage aboard the steamship SS Columbia on an excursion to Bob-Lo Island. According to the assistant general manager of the Bob-Lo Excursion Company, which operated the steamship, it had a policy of excluding "'Zoot-suiters,' the rowdyish, the rough, and the boisterous, and… colored."
Ray then went to the NAACP, where she filed a criminal complaint against the Bob-lo Company.
The local courts ruled in Ms. Ray's favor. The owners of the line appealed to the Michigan State Supreme Court, which subsequently also ruled in Ms. Ray's favor. The Bob-lo Company then appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking the Court to hold the state's civil rights act unconstitutional because it infringed upon the power of Congress to regulate interstate and foreign commerce. In a historic ruling, The Court upheld the Michigan civil rights. Bob-Lo Excursion Co. v. People of the State of Michigan, 333 U.S. 28 affirmed the ruling of the lower courts, signaling the Supreme Court's willingness to protect the civil rights of Black Americans. This case would prove crucial in paving the way for Brown v. Board of Education.
They did fundraisers and organized volunteer cleanups of park, but it was a daunting task - to clean up and care for 20 acres of overgrown, marshy territory. Over the years, volunteers have come and gone, but the park is still in need of upkeep.
"We are trying, and hopefully things will change," Rev. Lang said. "But as it stands right now, it looks kind of bleak, I must admit."
Virginia has a program that funds maintenance for historic Black cemeteries, allotting $5 per grave. But as a private cemetery, Pleasant Shade doesn't qualify, even though it was the main cemetery for Black people across the Peninsula for decades.
Archaeologists, blessed by community prayers and a reading from scripture, began to excavate graves this week at the long-lost site of the original First Baptist Church in Colonial Williamsburg, one of the oldest Black churches in the country.
Forty-one grave shafts have now been discovered at the site of the church, which was torn down in 1955 and covered by a parking lot because it didn't fit the town's Colonial motif.
Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, Alabama, played a pivotal role in the Selma to Montgomery marches that were instrumental to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Built in 1908 by formerly enslaved Black builder A.J. Farley, Brown Chapel provided sanctuary to civil rights activists and church members as they convened to plan protests against African American voter disenfranchisement.
Incorporated in 1875, Olivewood Cemetery in Houston, Texas, is one of the oldest-known platted African American cemeteries in Houston, with more than 4,000 burials on its 7.5-acre site.
What members found when they returned was heartbreaking: Termites had eaten so much wood that parts of the structure weren't stable anymore, said member Juanda Maxwell, and water leaks damaged walls. Mold was growing in parts of the building, where hundreds met before Alabama state troopers attacked voting rights demonstrators on Bloody Sunday in 1965 at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
"It's in horrible shape," said Maxwell. "It's a tough time. Because we were closed for a year it exacerbated the problem with water coming in."
The Founder and President, E. Renee Ingram, was driven to save her family cemetery, the historic Stanton Family Cemetery, in Central Virginia, from a state highway improvement project that would have impacted the site. Working with community and state officials, her family was able to preserve the 49 burials and have the state highway department realign their improvement plans. Ingram's passion reached beyond her family's victory and she embarked on a mission advocating for the preservation of endangered African American sites across the country.
Now AAHPF locates, registers, and shares information for saving as many notable endangered African American Historic Sites as possible. Here's a list of many of those sites.
The First Baptist Church was formed in 1776 by free and enslaved Black people. They initially met secretly in fields and under trees in defiance of laws that prevented African Americans from congregating.
By 1818, the church had its first building in the former colonial capital. The 16-foot by 20-foot (5-meter by 6-meter) structure was destroyed by a tornado in 1834.
Coates, a longtime member of the Brewer Hill Cemetery Association, watched a torrent of stormwater wash over this historic African American graveyard last year, erasing the engravings on headstones and the legacies they represented.
"All the water was running through washing away the soil from the graves," Coates recalled in a recent interview with E&E News. "There were some grave markers that were so ruined or messed up that you could not tell the names on them."
Brewer Hill Cemetery is the oldest Black graveyard in Annapolis. It contains the remains of more than 7,000 slaves and freed African Americans who were not allowed to be buried alongside white people.