Historical Society in Arkansas Working to Shed Light on Slaves' Lives and Burial Places

In remote cemeteries off lonely rural highways, slaves who once toiled under the command of white owners rest in unmarked graves hidden among hardwoods and covered with brush.

Little is known about the 111,115 slaves who lived in Arkansas before the Civil War, even though they made up a quarter of the state's population. Their labor made Arkansas one of the largest cotton producers in the country.

In White County, the Historical Society wants to bring greater respect in death to a people who did not get basic consideration in life. Slaves often didn't matter to their owners — especially once they were dead.

"Blacks were generally discussed in plantation records in the context of their economic contributions," says Michael Trinkley, a slave cemetery expert from South Carolina. "When a slave died, the truth of the matter is they were no longer an economic asset to the planter."

History enthusiasts are hopeful they can piece together the scant evidence of a slave's life, beginning at the end — in the cemeteries.

Standing in a shaded patch of ground yards from an 1857 church that served white congregations, Lamar Wright makes a sweeping gesture toward some mounds covered with weeds. Nothing is marked, but his research has told him that slaves or freed slaves are buried there.

"There's graves all out here, (and) not one single marker," Wright says. "That's what appalled me. Put a cross up!"

Wright, whose great-grandparents were slaves, has been a member of the White County Historical Society for about six months. He bases his conviction on the seven years of work by fellow society member Lee Blair, on conversations Wright has had with long-time county residents, and on history records.

An Army retiree, Blair drove the county's back roads and tramped through chigger-infested woods to identify where people of any race or social standing were buried. He doubled the county's list of known cemeteries to almost 200 and has since taken his cemetery search to neighboring counties.

On his White County list are five cemeteries where the society believes slaves are buried and 44 cemeteries where they might be interred. Wright believes the figures are conservative.

There is no single repository of research or listings of slave cemeteries, in Arkansas or elsewhere. The Arkansas Archaeological Survey, which maintains a database of thousands of archaeological properties in the state, relies on groups like the White County Historical Society to identify and submit their findings for the database, says state archaeologist Ann Early.

"We are still very much in the infancy of doing the tedious and slow process of verifying carefully who is in a particular cemetery," Early says. "Of the thousands of people who lived and died as slaves in Arkansas, we know virtually none of the places for sure, precisely, where they are buried. It is still something that deserves an enormous amount of attention and needs enormous amount of research."

Trinkley, an archaeologist and director of the nonprofit Chicora Foundation in Columbia, S.C., says for one county to have a known collection of five slave cemeteries would be a rarity. The foundation is considered an authority on black cemeteries in the Southeast, having started its preservation work in the 1970s and provided testimony in court cases on the subject.

Trinkley says written records on slaves and corroborating accounts of their lives recalled by their descendants are so hard to come by, it is difficult to say with certainty where slaves are buried. The foundation itself has studied thousands of plats of historic properties in South Carolina and identified only two slave cemeteries.

"There are remarkably few accounts of slave burials," Trinkley says. "The location of the slave cemetery, the description of where it was, any concern with marking it off and making it permanent really was outside the mind-set of most of the planters."

In his research, Wright looks for the tell-tale signs of black burial sites: a crude stone in the ground or perhaps a slight change in vegetation atop a rise in the earth.

In White County, a known black cemetery has a marker that reads "Eleck Nelson born Aug 2 1864 died Sept 1885 at rest." Eleck was the black spelling of the traditionally white name Alex, Wright says.

Wright often visits with Boyd Nix of Rose Bud, whose grandfather was a slave and was buried in Oklahoma. Nix, 93, has lived on the same property all his life and tended two cemeteries — Dupriest and Mount Olive — where Wright says slaves are buried. Nix can name the families of freed slaves who moved to the area and became "the colony."

"Me and the church and the cemetery, we're the only ones left. That's the colony," Nix says.

Little is left, too, in written accounts. Any description of the day-to-day lives of slaves is virtually absent in historic documents — tax records, land deeds, church records, and medical and death records. Personal diaries of white landowners from that period may mention slaves, while interviews of former slaves were conducted in the 1930s as part of a federal government project.

"It's an important part of Arkansas history and it's not impossible" to piece together, Early says, "but it's just labor-intensive."