Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Climate change is threatening historic African American sites in the South

A burial site at Olivewood Cemetery in Houston, a historic cemetery that is the final resting place of generations of freedmen and former slaves, as well as Houston’s first black aldermen.
Credit: Amal Ahmed

On a hot, humid September afternoon, Charles Cook, a wiry man in his 60s, visited Olivewood Cemetery in Houston, Texas, to clear the weeds and vines that always seem to creep up cracked headstones and across burial plots. The cemetery, which has graves dating back to the 1870s, is the final resting place of generations of freedmen and former slaves, Houston’s first black aldermen, and the doctors, lawyers, barbers, realtors and families who built this city’s black middle class more than a century ago. 

Cook comes to Olivewood several times a month. His wife used to complain that the cemetery doesn’t pay their rent or the electric bills. But lately she’s relented, helping him buy supplies for his weed whacker, so that he can keep tending to the graves of the long-gone, and nearly forgotten.

“Because this cemetery was for African Americans, a lot of resources weren’t available,” Cook said. 

Olivewood runs on a small stream of donations and the work of Cook and Margott Williams, who helped found the nonprofit, Descendants of Olivewood, which serves as the cemetery’s caretakers. Cook estimates that if he were to hire help to maintain the cemetery, it would cost close to $500 a month for the labor that he does on his own on the weekends. If there were money, someday, he envisions building stone pathways between the rows of graves. “Like when you go to South Carolina, you see the cobblestone streets. It is beautiful, Margott,” he said as we all three stood in the shade of the trees. 

Olivewood has seen better days, but it’s improved since Williams found it in the late 1990s. “This has been a labor of love,” said Williams, whose grandfather is buried there. 

Love alone can’t save Olivewood from the threat of nature encroaching on this small plot of land. Each year seems to bring another major storm: this month, when Tropical Storm Imelda pelted the city with rain, southeast Texas saw its fifth 500-year flood in five years.

The cemetery borders White Oak Bayou, the neighborhood’s main watershed that floods often; Williams suspects at the far end of Olivewood, where infants and children are buried, dozens of graves have been lost to floodwaters. The land has started to subside, making it dangerous for her and Cook to try and clear the waist-high brush.

There’s a disparity in preservation resources for many African American cultural and historic sites like this across the nation. In the South, many are also vulnerable to environmental threats. On the other side of White Oak Bayou, Independence Heights — Texas’ first incorporated black city — has flooded in at least three 500-year storms that have hit the Houston area in recent years. The neighborhood is facing a county flood control buyout program that could wipe it off the map. 

Elsewhere in the South, Princeville, North Carolina, which was one of the first towns settled by freedmen after the Civil War, was built on the side of the riverbank deemed undesirable by whites, who refused to build in the flood and hurricane prone lowland. In Indianola, Mississippi, one 20th century historian described the town as “flat as a tennis court,” but the white side of town was on a slight upward slope — and the first homes to flood were always those of black residents. 

“Climate change is having a real impact on these sites, whether it’s environmental justice, where zoning has allowed for industrial development, or if its Gullah cottages on coastal lands, being impacted by hurricanes and rising floodplains,” said Brent Leggs, executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund

Overgrowth at Olivewood, a historic black cemetery that is eroding because of chronic flooding. Credit: Amal Ahmed

These sites are woefully underrepresented on the National Register of Historic Places, which is managed by the National Park Service and offers more funding and resources than state historical recognition. In 2004, the agency estimated that less than 5 percent of sites in the National Register reflect a broad category of diversity, across race and ethnicity. The National Trust established the $25 million fund to tell a fuller version of American history — one that acknowledges the struggles and triumphs of black communities across the nation. 

The campaign launched at the end of 2017, and by January 2018, it had already received over 800 applications asking for $91 million, according to Leggs. “That statistic represents that African American historic places have been undervalued and underfunded by traditional preservation movements,” he said. While these sites have suffered neglect, there are hundreds of preserved plantation homes across the South — nearly 70 in Texas alone

Protecting Olivewood from flooding would be a massive project. The cemetery is at a lower elevation than the surrounding businesses, condos and apartment complexes, causing flood waters to accumulate, said Myron Jones, Harris County Flood Control District’s Precinct One coordinator. If the cemetery were elevated, all of the caskets would have to be exhumed and reburied. 

Houston, and Harris County, are making improvements to the region’s complex system of bayous and drainage — building new detention ponds, widening channels — but can never seem to keep up with the rising water. A number of engineering projects are slated for White Oak Bayou, but the Flood Control District can’t explicitly put tax dollars towards the cemetery since it’s considered private property, Jones said. The agency is in talks with the City of Houston to see if a possible partnership can be established to address some of the erosion and flooding. 

Cook and Williams have become far more than groundskeepers — they’re historians, marketers, and fundraisers for the cemetery, which they say has been neglected for decades. Williams, whose elementary school was within walking distance, said she didn’t know about it until her grandmother was buried there next to her grandfather. In the 1990s, when Williams took over, Grocers Supply, one of the South’s largest grocery wholesale companies, operated a massive warehouse across the street from Olivewood. The acres of impervious concrete and poor drainage caused sheets of runoff to inundate the cemetery for decades. (Grocers Supply did not respond for comment.) In 2006, Williams helped the cemetery gain state historical recognition, but it didn’t come with funding to address these issues.

A few years ago, the company sold its land. Now, a Kroger sits on the lot, and it has been a better neighbor so far, Cook said, paying for a new fence around the cemetery, and the updated drainage systems no longer cause runoff.

Charles Cook and Margott Williams, who helped found the nonprofit, Descendants of Olivewood. Credit: Amal Ahmed
Charles Cook and Margott Williams, volunteers who helped found the nonprofit, Descendants of Olivewood, to care for the cemetery. Credit: Amal Ahmed

Historic sites in other low-lying Southern communities are being impacted by development and climate change. In 1928, a hurricane hit West Palm Beach, Florida and flooded a community of predominantly non-white laborers and service workers. There are no official records of how many lost their lives, but hundreds of African Americans were buried in a mass grave that stood unmarked until 2000. Almost a century later, attempts at recovering traces of that history have proven difficult.

In New Orleans, rampant gentrification after Hurricane Katrina is chipping away at historically black neighborhoods like Treme, one of the birthplaces of jazz. City historical codes seem to place more emphasis on preserving the aesthetics of the neighborhood than the residents themselves, said Darryl Durham, the president of the Historic Faubourg Treme Association. Many homes that were passed on between generations of black families are now rented out to tourists through companies like Airbnb.  

“History and preservation is not just about some pretty buildings. It tells you who you are, and where you come from, and where you can go,” Durham said. “It’s critical that we understand our history, because it’s being rewritten for us.” 

There are many groups working to preserve that history. Earlier this year, a group of artists launched a campaign to save the North Carolina home of the legendary Soul singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone from demolition after it had fallen into a state of disrepair. The A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham, Alabama, where Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. strategized, had been abandoned for decades before then-President Obama declared it a national monument in 2017.  

But the few people protecting Olivewood worry the same fate of other underfunded sites could await the cemetery. “If we’re supposed to be the most diverse city in America now, this history is important, not just for African American history, but to Texas history and the nation,” said Jasmine Lee, a college student who volunteers with the Descendants of Olivewood. “Places like Olivewood often end up falling into this little valley, where people acknowledge the history of the place, but they’re not really willing to step outside of that and say, ‘This is now historically important enough to invest in.’”

Amal Ahmed is an Austin-based journalist who primarily covers climate change and environmental justice.