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Flowers for Black History Month

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Flowers for Black History Month: Grave Bouquets Placed at Birmingham’s Greenwood Cemetery for George and Eliza Taylor, and Abraham and Abbie Farmer Harris

By Donna Casaceli

Black History Month BouquetsBouquets Mark Their Graves

George and Eliza Taylor and Abraham and Abbie Farmer Harris were African Americans who lived in early Birmingham and who are buried in Greenwood Cemetery. Until recently, their stories and heritage were unknown, and three of the four had no grave marker. When it was recently learned that Birmingham’s Black history revolves around these people, the Friends of the Birmingham Museum provided funds to recognize the location of their graves with silk flowers during Black History Month. This effort involved some focused research and effort to prepare bouquets that reflect the symbolism of our nation’s Black History, and this article explains the meaning behind the flowers used for our bouquets. The bouquets will be left in place during the month of February, but funds have already been raised for the Taylors’ grave markers, and Abraham will be added to Abbie’s marker as well.

The Flowers’ Meaning to Enslaved and Freed African Americans

The plants I used in the bouquets were chosen for special reasons. They may not seem like mourning plants to our modern eyes, but they had special meanings to many enslaved and freed African Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries. African American and enslaved burial grounds were not as manicured as the typical public cemetery of the Victorian period. They tended to be more “overgrown” and wild. This was because the first enslaved Americans were given peripheral land for burials, usually wooded, or otherwise not usable for agriculture. Enslaved Americans had little means to mark the graves, so they relied on customs from their homeland, such as seashells, plants and objects that were beloved or last used by the deceased (cooking pots and other items denoting trade were first “ruined” before being placed. They were “ruined” so they would not be stolen.)

Families also marked graves with plants and perennial flowers, which would return each year in memory of the deceased loved one.  After the end of slavery, many African American cemeteries continued the tradition of marking gravesites with plants and flowers, giving African American cemeteries a more natural landscape – wooded and overflowing with wildflowers and perennials. Today, the Periwinkle Incentive (http://slaveryandremembrance.org/partners/partner/?id=P0087) and other organizations use the presence of these plants to find the burials of enslaved Americans through the South, and the graveyards of late 19th and early 20th century African Americans.

The Language of Flowers in Black History

The flowers used in the arrangements are associated with the cultural practices used by African Americans before and after the Civil War. There is no “standard” Black History Month designated flower; rather, the arrangements that I made for the Taylors and Harrises are an expression of my research and understanding thus far.

PeriwinklePeriwinkle – This plant is thought to be one of the most popular flowers brought to the graves of the enslaved. Today the Periwinkle Initiative is an organization that is creating a database of enslaved burials. They are so named because this nearly evergreen plant with small blue flowers still persists over many of the graves enslaved African Americans, allowing them to be located and recorded. The flower today signifies the endurance of the enslaved Americans and their legacy.

YuccaYucca plant – Yucca is another plant that marks many early graves even today. It can live hundreds of years and represents eternity. In many African American communities it was also traditionally thought that yucca kept restless spirits in the grave.

DaffodilDaffodils – Daffodils have been associated with cemeteries for a long time, with one variety even known as the “Cemetery Ladies.” The daffodil was also used to mark graves because it is a perennial, and because of its hardy nature. Also due to its ability to spread, it was known as a “pass-along” plant for  those who could not afford to buy the bulbs to mark a grave. Many enslaved cemeteries have daffodils and other like perennials growing throughout.

CedarCedar branches – the branches in our Greenwood bouquets represent the cedar trees that are commonly found on African American Burial grounds. The cedar was sometimes used as a grave marker because it is an evergreen, and represents everlasting life in many cultures. It is also known as the Cemetery Tree in many parts of the U.S. South, with a traditional belief that the tree keeps away evil spirits.

Sea shellsSea Shells – Although found in mourning rituals in several cultures, the seashell in enslaved African American culture held an especially significant meaning. The seashell symbolized the concept that it was the sea that brought the people to the shores of America in life, and it was the sea that would take them back to Africa – and freedom – in death. Many graves were covered in seashells, and shells were used well into the 20th century to mark African American graves. The tradition is traced back to many cultures in Africa who still use seashells in mourning rituals. People still place seashells – and coins - on graves. They are placed as a sign that the person buried is still remembered, and that they had a visitor.