“Slaves, Paupers and Indians”

On the back 40 of my family farm is a lovely little cemetery that my ancestors established for “Slaves, Paupers and Indians” – people who were not allowed to be buried in the regular town cemetery.  One of Harriet Tubman’s people, Mother Charity, is buried there, along with former slaves and children of slaves. There are Osage Indian mounds in the cemetery, and the graves of poor white people who couldn’t afford plots elsewhere. Established in 1875, and now consecrated as Holy Resurrection Cemetery, the original Berry cemetery is on the National Register of Historic Places.

I have noticed through the many years I’ve been back in Ash Grove on my family property, a peculiar phenomenon.  When folks come to visit, the people of color always, without fail, want to visit the cemetery. It’s a spiritual experience for them, often bringing them to tears. The white folks, well-meaning and often religious, seldom ask to see it. I’ve wondered about this.

It may be because people are simply not interested in that which does not directly resonate with them. The African Americans, and the Africans, and certain others that have visited here, feel a personal connection to those buried in a little cemetery in Ash Grove, because on a very profound level, they know that they share the same experience of suffering. This is not merely a matter of sentiment. It puts me in mind of the verse from Langston Hughes’ poem, “I’ve Known Rivers”—that feeling is “older than the flood and deeper than the blood.”

I think that the varying interest in the cemetery points to something essential about our experience as Americans. We are not, in our bones, one people. In some very deep ways, we are not Americans, together. The nation as a whole has not repented of nor made amends for hundreds of years of enslaving and thus profiting from Black Americans. Neither has it repented of the mistreatment and betrayal of the country’s native peoples. Most of the white people who have come to visit me aren’t interested in the cemetery, because they don’t think it has anything to do with them – it’s just an historic site.

When the cemetery was consecrated, back in 1995, Fr. Alexii Altschul and I spoke of what it represented, why it was important. Its existence spoke to a wound this country suffers from, one that can only truly be addressed on a spiritual level, through prayer, fasting and almsgiving. We acknowledged, then, that legislation and social programs could and should address the problems faced by “slaves, paupers and Indians,” but the real healing would need to come from somewhere else. Let us continue, in fear and trembling before God, to work towards that end.


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