Gulf of Mexico
Ursel and John Forbes inspect the graves at their family plot in Mobile, Alabama.

AL - Climate change is erasing Black Cemeteries in the South. Here’s what you need to know

Black cemeteries have long been a window into the past, where communities have gathered to mourn and remember their loved ones.

In parts of Oaklawn Memorial Cemetery, one of Mobile’s known Black burial sites, you can see glimpses of gray and moss-covered graves poking out of the long grass or behind fallen tree limbs. In other places, the barely visible dirt paths lead to beautifully cared-for plots with graves adorned in bright-colored flowers under the kind of dreamy and languid trees you might only find in the South.

Other paths, half-covered in weeds and grass, unspool into neglected tree lines and ground depressions where the graves of genuine Black heroes have been long consumed by nature.

“There are beautiful stories under all this,” said Ursel Forbes, observing the overgrown fields around her small family plot. She was checking it for flood damage with her brother John Forbes who was visiting from Texas. “What you can see is kept up by families and volunteers. So much of the rest is hidden or probably long gone.”Recent flooding shifted one of her grandparent’s gravestones. Her brother said that just touching it could cause it to fall.

Among those resting at Oaklawn are the famed Buffalo Soldiersand Tuskegee Airmen, alongside veterans from as far back as World War One and all the wars after that. The U.S. Coast Guard and a local veterans group help where they can, but most of the upkeep is done by families.

Without their help, Oaklawn would go the way of many other Black cemeteries in the United States, especially in the South: unseen, forgotten, and eventually lost.

Black cemeteries have long been a window into the past, where communities have gathered to mourn and remember their loved ones.

In the era of slavery, enslaved people were often buried in unmarked graves without formal acknowledgment. Black communities began to establish their own burial sites after emancipation as a form of resistance and resilience. The cemeteries were typically on the outskirts of cities, where land was cheaper and where white people would have fewer objections.

Upkeep of the cemeteries back then was just as it is today, through families and local volunteers.

Today, Black cemeteries hold a long and complex history, standing as a monument to Black heroes while also serving as a reminder of those who endured and overcame slavery, segregation and discrimination.

But as climate change brings increasingly unpredictable weather, Black cemeteries, in particular, are under serious threat.

Severe weather and income inequality

Flooding can shift gravestones and the heavy vaults below. Prolonged rain can cause large branches and trees to fall on the graves. Hurricanes, regular visitors to the Gulf of Mexico, can bring weather so destructive that it could wipe out an entire family’s history in a moment, just like what happened in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

Read more.