Take Me Down to the Burial Ground: Trees as Agents of Spatial and Spiritual Meaning in Nineteenth Century African American Cemeteries

Hughes, Amelia, Architectural History - School of Architecture, University of Virginia
Hughes, Amelia, Architecture Graduate, University of Virginia

While it can sometimes appear that the landscape of early African American cemeteries is haphazard and disorganized, this paper argues that these are in fact intentionally created spaces purposefully designed to facilitate the unique African American social and cultural practices surrounding funerary rituals which evolved as a direct result of the condition of enslavement. The funerary traditions established during slavery were a unique result of the cultural exchange between the theological beliefs of enslaved workers of African descent and those of the dominant Christian culture. These traditions were embedded in the culture and so continued to be practiced well into the 20th century, especially in rural areas of the South, resulting in unique cultural landscapes that have been largely misunderstood and understudied. The method used is a combined approach, consulting a variety of written and oral narrative sources in tandem with careful examination of available material evidence to examine these dynamic sites in the most complete way possible.
Trees inhabit a unique place in the cultural and theological funerary traditions of enslaved workers of African descent and African Americans. Used as creators of physical and spiritual space, trees were intentionally chosen or placed as keepers of spiritual meaning and creators of a kind of sacred grove, a tradition found in West African theology. They also serve an architectural purpose to define and enclose the sacred cemetery space as well as providing shelter and form for funeral ceremonies. The use of trees in this way has not been properly recognized in previous studies of these historic cultural landscapes, which this thesis seeks to rectify. The first chapter examines historical evidence to understand funeral rituals and the sacred spaces in which they took place beginning with the eighteenth century and tracing them through Emancipation and the early twentieth century. Chapter two discusses the in-depth field work study of five cemetery locations in Albemarle County, Virginia and seeks to understand how the cultural traditions established in chapter one influenced the creation of these sacred spaces. Chapter three focuses on the use of trees as creators of space and meaning in early African American cemeteries, drawing on the oral narrative evidence from chapter one and the material evidence of chapter two. What may appear to be unintentional and disorganized spaces in rural Southern 19th century African American cemeteries were in fact intentionally created utilizing existing landscape features to facilitate the performance of funeral rituals unique to African Americans in the rural South which were developed as a result of the social and theological conditions of enslavement.

MARH (Master of Architectural History)
African American Cemeteries, Slave Cemeteries, Slave Funerals, Funeral Trees, Cemetery Landscape, Albemarle County
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