Greenwood Cementery's Historical Significance
When Greenwood Cemetery was established, its founders were acting to provide a place where the dead of Tallahassee's black community could be properly and respectfully buried. For fifty years it was considered a private cemetery, separate from public facilities, and during much of that time it was neglected and discounted. In 1987, after a campaign to restore the site, Greenwood Cemetery was returned to the dignity and grace that its founders had meant for it to carry through eternity.
The history of the black community is an integral part of Tallahassee and Leon County's history, and it is vital for understanding and interpreting the history of the State of Florida. Greenwood Cemetery exhibits a rich diversity of grave markers and mid-20th-century burial traditions. The marker inscriptions reveal important information about demography, epidemiology, settlement geography, trade patterns, ethnicity, and attitudes towards religion and death. In addition, the markers reflect the social and economic status of the individuals buried beneath them, and, as importantly, record the social structure of Tallahassee's black community over a fifty-year period.
Generally, the markers can be divided into three categories;
- Commercial markers of marble or polished granite which are made by professional companies, or, in certain instances, provided by the U. S. Government for military veterans.
- Cast concrete, with the inscriptions incised in the material while it is wet. These are generally inexpensive and provided by a funeral home or a local business.
- Markers of various materials such as wood, metal, or concrete, usually hand-fashioned and decorated by relatives and friends of the deceased. These often display elements of folk art and/or traditions adapted from an earlier Afro-American culture.
The markers of Greenwood Cemetery generally can be interpreted as reflecting the social positions of the deceased, i.e. large, formally designed commercial stones indicating higher status and wealth, and smaller, simple markers, including those that are considered "homemade," indicating lesser degrees of wealth and prestige.
However, it should be noted that not all hand-fashioned markers indicate low economic status. Rather, they are important expressions of Afro-American folk art, with reflections of West and Central African cultural traditions. At the present time, many of the customs are no longer understood, or they have taken on new meanings that are now associated with the Christian religion. Also, as each generation moves farther away from its ancestors, old practices are forgotten and no longer continued.
Academic studies of such traditions have centered on burial grounds in the Georgia and South Carolina low country and in isolated rural areas of what is sometimes referred to as the "Upland South." However, the traditions can be found throughout the South, wherever slavery was approved.
Vestiges of such traditions are evident in Greenwood Cemetery, and the relatively few examples that remain are valuable for interpreting the history and culture of Afro-Americans.
African Burial Traditions Brought to Tallahassee
Examples of folk art and cultural expressions that are evident at Greenwood include crosses fashioned of wood and metal; concrete markers which incorporate pieces of decorative tile and mirrors in their designs; gravestones and slabs painted silver; and gravesites marked by items belonging to the deceased.
The tiles, mirrors and reflective paint are associated with water, due to the old belief that when a person died a river was crossed, or passed over, to the afterlife. The mirrors can also be interpreted as reflecting the mirror image of the world of the living and the world of the dead. Placing personal items at graves also has traditional beliefs based in West African, Southeast Indian, and some European cultures. Such objects were usually valued by the deceased and considered important for rest of the individual's spirit, or were the last objects used in death, such as a bowl or cup and saucer.
A similar tradition, found in all but the newest of cemeteries or "memorial gardens," consists of historical plantings which were done by family and friends of the deceased. The shrubs and flowers not only served to beautify an otherwise forlorn and sorrowful plot, but were symbols of death (or life); Greenwood Cemetery has many individual plantings which represent these beliefs. Crepe myrtle shrubs were once a common plant for graveyards and cemeteries in the South. Evergreen trees, particularly cedars and yew, are symbols of everlasting life, just as the palms are symbolic of resurrection and triumph over death.
A Living Museum of a City's Past
In addition to the many important cultural elements evident in Greenwood, the site also embodies an important part of local history, exhibiting both popular and traditional characteristics. It is an outdoor museum, the markers serving as monuments to individuals who have played pivotal roles in the community's development, and mirroring the societal patterns that have existed in Tallahassee for the past fifty years.
It is the final resting place for many persons important to Tallahassee's history, including Maxwell Courtney, the first black to attend and graduate Florida State University; Willie Gallimore, three-time All-American running back for Florida A&M University's football team and player for the Chicago Bears; James M. Abner, principal of Lincoln High School; and T. M. McKinnis, owner of the Red Bird Cafe.