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Sunday, July 17, 2016

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Part 2: Finding Burials for Formerly Enslaved People

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Fairview Cemetery, 2014

In Part 1: Finding burials for formerly enslaved people, you learned how to use the 1870 Census, death certificates and obituaries to discover the final resting place of emancipated ancestors and their descendants. The resources included below have also proved very helpful in determining burial sites.

Historic cemeteries
As you go through locating death certificates for family members who lived after the dawn of freedom, you will become familiar with the earliest burial places used by African Americans. Hopefully, you will put forth the extra effort to visit these cemeteries to determine if they are cared for and if the surviving graves have been documented. Do not expect to see all modern headstones in these early burial places. Some ancestors may only have a blank field stone to mark where they were buried. In some cases, you will only see depressions in the ground where graves have sunk deep.

It can be disheartening to find overgrown cemeteries or desecrated graves. Any effort you put forth to identify undocumented graves will be greatly appreciated by living descendants who are tracing their family history. Headstones crumble and deteriorate. If no record of burials exist in the local library or on Find A Grave, there is a risk that whatever still survives will not be available in the future.

If you could not find a death certificate for your ancestor's burial, check the following places:
  • Historic cemeteries – It is not uncommon to find burial sites (often unkempt) of formerly enslaved people or their descendants laid to rest in Confederate cemeteries or cemeteries which were part of now extinct communities.
  • The property where your ancestor lived during enslavement – Many plantations had a burial site for deceased people who were enslaved, and they used this burial site to lay descendants to rest long after freedom came.
  • Church site of the former owner – If the former owner had a cemetery on the church site, check the grounds for burials of African Americans.
  • Early church site of emancipated ancestor – Many African American communities put their money together to purchase land for churches and a burial site of their own if they were not allowed to be buried in the traditional places they used prior to Emancipation.
  • Ancestor's land – Often the land acquired by the freedmen became a early burial spot for family members
  • Pauper cemetery – Donated land or land designated to be used as a burial place for the less fortunate became the burial spot for African Americans who were destitute.
  • State hospital cemetery – African Americans confined to state or mental hospitals can be found to be buried in the cemetery on the grounds.
  • State prison – African Americans who died while incarcerated were often buried in the cemeteries owned by the state prison.
  • Private land – Many early lands owned by African Americans after enslavement were lost. Trace the deeds to these properties to determine the current owners. If there is a burial spot or cemetery on private land, this will require permission of the current owner to gain access.
Land records
If you have narrowed down the community where your ancestor lived until death, check to see if the local government has a local Geographic Information System (GIS). Search for the property using the current owner's name or the parcel identification number. You should be able to locate the deed and the plat map for the property online. You might also find a record of the previous owners and land surveys. Sometimes cemeteries are included in the property surveys. This has been one very successful way of identifying forgotten and undocumented cemeteries.

Try looking up the name, Joe Wah, on the Greenwood GIS. You will see a parcel for a cemetery connected to Joe Wah. It is Fairview Cemetery (Parcel number: 6856-442-485) which not too long ago was almost totally undocumented. In the process of documenting Fairview Cemetery, it was discovered that many people interred there had lived through being enslaved.

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