Honoring Black History: Black cemeteries in Institute – The road to desegregation

Black History Month

INSTITUTE, WV (WOWK) – Before the 1950s, the law of the land involved segregation. Blacks and whites were separated in schools, restaurants and bathrooms. They were even separated in death, but things have changed since then.

Institute has several Black cemeteries in remote locations. African Americans had to have their own separate place to be buried until just about 70 years ago.

Up on the hill behind the veteran’s cemetery in Institute is a piece of history. It’s one oldest and largest Black cemeteries in the state which has more than 100 graves that date back to the 1800s.

 “That cemetery has a lot. It’s very difficult to count them because it’s really never been taken care of and so many of the graves have sunk down in the ground,” Betty Spencer, Institute, WV said.

These graves are so old that a lot of the graves have slid down the hill toward the veteran’s cemetery. Institute also has four other Black cemeteries in the area.

During segregation in the 1950s, Blacks and whites were not allowed to be buried together.

In order to bury their dead in the Black community, we found out that most of the cemeteries were privately owned, and family could only be buried there if they had known relatives.  

“Half the people didn’t have markers. They just had those little small plastic things and it’s really hard to tell who is who,” Spencer said.

Friends and family had a hard time going to visit their loved ones at the Institute Cemetery since it is on a large steep hill and in bad condition. Until two years ago, it didn’t have any paved roads leading to the cemetery. 

“In the winter it was awful when someone was buried. Sometimes they had to keep the body at the bottom the hill for a while before they could even get it up the hill,” Spencer said.

As the years progressed, it has been difficult to keep some of these Black cemeteries maintained. 

Kent Mosley, who has quite a bit of family buried at numerous cemeteries, remembers helping to clean up his family graves with his father when he was young. 

“Right now, I have my grandmother, my grandfather, two aunts and an uncle buried here,” Mosely said. “We had to walk up, carry all kinds of cleaning equipment and size and things to cut all the weeds. Most of the time when you got here, you only cut it one time a year just during Memorial Day.”

In the early 1950’s things changed for these Black cemeteries.

“They got their first Black in Dunbar,” Spencer said.

The first Black person was buried at Grandview Cemetery, which used to be for just white people.

 “After that a lot of minorities go there now,” Spencer said.

“It used to be kind of one area that most of the minorities would go, but now there are kind of some different areas and that’s almost like all the cemeteries in the area,” Spencer said.  

The first Black burial in Grandview Cemetery paved the way for other cemeteries across the state to be inclusive to African Americans.

It has been a long time since any African American has been buried at these Black cemeteries. but workers and families of the deceased do try and keep them maintained, as best as they can while the history remains solid in all our memories.

 “West Virginia State University had care days and they have come up a few times and taken care of that and there’s been some very, very dedicated Black men that would come up here and clean it off at least once or twice a year,” Mosley said.

Spencer says she’s glad she’s able to see things continue to progress.

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