Climate change is threatening historic African American sites in the South

Climate change is threatening historic African American sites in the South

Video Courtesy of HTV Houston Television


This article was originally published on Southerly.


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.

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.

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.

Deaf Christians often struggle to hear God’s word, but some find meaning in the richness of who they are

Deaf Christians often struggle to hear God’s word, but some find meaning in the richness of who they are

Deaf worshippers sign a hymn while following sign language interpreter Diely Martinez at Holyrood Episcopal Church-Iglesia Santa Cruz in New York City, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019.
AP Photo/Emily Leshner

For years, my husband would say after we returned from the church, “I thought the sermon was good.” To that, I would reply, “I didn’t hear the sermon, as usual.”

As a person with a severe to profound hearing loss, I nearly left the church out of frustration and anger. In addition to hymns, spoken readings and testimonies, Christian worship focuses on the spoken word. As scripture says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

I am not alone in feeling discouraged by so much focus on the word of God and spoken words in the Christian tradition. Many people with hearing loss leave or disengage from their Christian faith.

But that doesn’t have to happen. As a theologian, I study how adults with hearing loss worldwide engage with their Christian faith through unique forms of worship and contemplative prayer, and I have found examples of holy people who experienced hearing loss.

Alienated in churches

One popular deaf Christian organization, Silent Blessings Deaf Ministries, estimates that as many as 4% of Christians worldwide are profoundly deaf. That number doesn’t include the people who have milder hearing loss, or older adults who experience hearing loss later in life. About 13% of Americans experience some hearing loss, which can affect their ability to participate in worship.

A 1997 National Council of Churches document on deafness describes the frustrations of people with conventional church services that emphasize spoken words. One woman who lost some hearing later in life said: “I was very active in the church, taught Sunday School for many years and served on the boards of various women’s groups. But then I started to lose my hearing and stopped understanding what was going on. I became very depressed and isolated. I don’t go to church any more.”

The biblical stories recounted in some scriptures also can feel alienating to deaf and hard-of-hearing people, according to theologian Wayne Morris.

In his 2008 book on deaf Christianity, Morris describes, as an example, how the story of Moses and the burning bush might be received in a deaf congregation. In it, Moses covers his eyes when he encounters God in the burning bush. Yet no person with deafness could stand to cover their eyes: Sight is what enables hearing-impaired people to navigate the world.

Other scriptures even name hearing loss as indicating separation from God. In Psalm 58:3-4, God’s chosen people of Israel are compared negatively to a deaf person. “The wicked go astray from the womb; they err from their birth, speaking lies. They have venom like the venom of a serpent, like the deaf adder that stops its ears.”

Worship services

As a result of the challenges they face in churches that emphasize spoken words, deaf people might choose worship services led by deaf pastors, or hearing churches whose worship styles engage all five senses of the body rather than focusing on hearing alone.

A hearing church that adds a signing interpreter but that maintains reliance on spoken words isn’t necessarily being welcoming. This can make people with hearing loss feel like they need to be “fixed,” or “made able” to attend hearing worship.

A deaf worship service includes not only the deaf, but those who appreciate a worship that involves more than just the sense of hearing.

There are several church communities that do signed worship. There are also emerging translations of the Bible including one in American sign language and a few other languages.

During a deaf worship service, praying happens with open eyes and with lots of signing. Hands are often raised up to sign a joyful “alleluia” to God. In fact, the whole congregation creates a mosaic of gestures that praise God. Silence is not required in order to hear the pastor speaking from pulpit.

Experiencing silence

People with hearing loss may find access to faith in the Christian tradition of silence, too.

Christian contemplative prayer, which developed among monks in the third and fourth centuries, celebrates silence as an essential part of prayer to God.

The 20th-century monk Thomas Merton, who is known for his contemplative and mystical spirit, once observed the ways words can even divide people from God.

“When we have really met and known the world in silence, words do not separate us from the world nor from other people, nor from God, nor from ourselves because we no longer trust entirely in language to contain reality,” he wrote in 1956.

Some deaf Christians see not hearing as a gift from God.

“He has created me with ears that hear what people REALLY say, for in my intensity to hear I listen not just with mechanically assisted hearing,” the deaf pastor Elizabeth von Trapp Walker said in a 1999 interview whether disability could be a gift from God. “I listen with my whole body. My eyes see the joy, pain and sorrow sometimes hidden in the words as the ears of my heart listen and read the body language of the speaker.”

For Christians like von Trapp and Merton, silence can enable a person be a better witness to the world around them.

Deaf saints

The Catholic Church recognizes some saints who were deaf.

Saint Teresa de Cartagena, a nun who lived in 15th-century Spain, lost her hearing in childhood. She wrote “Grove of the Infirm,” a book about disability and faith, sometime between 1450 and 1460. Teresa writes of her deafness as a great good because it leads her toward God. “God has placed such cloisters on my hearing” so that she can “maintain complete silence in order to better understand” an inner spiritual life with God.

The 16th-century Saint Teresa of Avila similarly found her tinnitus – a ringing in the ears often associated with hearing loss – “no hindrance either to my prayer or to what I am saying now, but the tranquility and love in my soul are quite unaffected, and so are its desires and clearness of mind.”

An Italian woman, Benedetta Bianchi Porro, was recently declared blessed, a step before being named a saint, on Sept. 14, 2019. Porro experienced progressive deafness beginning at age 15 as a result of polio.

She sought healing in 1963 for deafness, along with other conditions associated with the disease, at Lourdes, a shrine in France that people visit in hopes of being healed of various diseases. While there, she wrote a letter to friend saying that she had received a miracle – not of recovery from deafness but of an understanding of the “richness of my condition.”

Porro isn’t the only Christian to learn that being deaf can deepen one’s faith. For me, finding a worship service that emphasizes all five senses and discovering that the silence I live because I am deaf has helped me embrace Christianity instead of leaving it behind.

Rather than fixing hearing loss or seeing deafness as a sign of God’s disfavor, the faith of deaf and hard-of-hearing Christians brings new understandings about God to the world.

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Jana Bennett, Professor of Religion, University of Dayton

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.