Climate change threatens Maryland’s historic black cemeteries

BALTIMORE — African-American cemeteries across Maryland are facing threats due to climate change. 

Broken headstones and cracked tombs are common sights in many African-American graveyards, as climate change exacerbates natural wear with increased flooding and erosion. 

Moorhill Cemetery, Annapolis’s oldest African-American cemetery, is home to over 7,000 former slaves and three notable black figures. 

Historically, stormwater drainage issues have eroded the cemetery’s ground, a problem exacerbated by the increasing frequency of heavy rain events in the Northeast-a 55% increase over the last six decades, according to a FEMA report.

Janice Hayes Williams, whose ancestors are buried in the cemetery, ties back to the renowned Wiley Bates, an advocate for equal education for black students in the 1900s. She remarks on the historical allocation of marginal land to African-Americans: 

“We already knew that land was not great, but this was an opportunity. We come out of slavery. We don’t have much, so we go where we can,” Williams said. 

Cemetery managers like Reginald Harris face additional challenges due to lack of government funding. Despite these hurdles, Harris is determined to preserve this critical piece of ancestral history.  

“I’m one of the people I have benefited from the strides and the work that these people did prior. So it’s only right for me to give back because they laid the groundwork. I’m standing on their shoulders,” Harris said.

About 12% of known African-American cemeteries in Anne Arundel County were reported in a 2022 survey. Yet, many, like Brewer Hill, rely mostly on family donations for maintenance. 

Maryland recently allocated a $100,000 grant to Moorhill Cemetery for drainage issues, with an additional $250,000 from the state’s African-American Heritage Preservation Program to aid in the restoration of approximately 200 damaged headstones.

Harris plans to further honor the buried, many in unmarked graves, by installing a columbarium and a memorial wall. Meanwhile, Hayes-Williams urges living relatives to contribute to preserving their familial and cultural history for future generations. 

“Just to walk through this place, I can see all the aldermen, the lynchings, the free blacks. Your story is right here. Not knowing where you come from, you can’t know where you’re going,” Harris said.

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