Cultural Customs

Many of the Africans that were brought to the Caribbean and North American were from areas such as modern day Angola and what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Randolph Cemetery is an example of an African-American burial where one can see African influenced burial customs and practices still in use. One of the most easily noticeable are the use of plantings that are specific to African-American cemeteries and rooted in West African spiritual beliefs. Plantings common to southern African-American cemeteries such as the Yucca, Cactus, Cedar can be seen throughout Randolph Cemetery. The abrasiveness of the Yucca and Cactus served to ward off evil spirits. The cedar tree which is an evergreen symbolizes the immortality of the soul and continuation of life. Objects that reference water are also seen throughout the cemetery. In west African cultures the world of the living and the world of the dead are connected by water and the sea is thought to be a means of transport between the two. Scalloped brick coping, most often white in color surround many of the individual burials and family plots in Randolph Cemetery referencing the significance of water in African spiritual beliefs.

"The shells stand for the sea. The sea brought us, the sea shall take us back. So the shells upon our graves stand for water, the means of glory and the land of demise." 1 – Bessie Johnson, 20th century black artist

Throughout recent years the practice of inverted objects being placed at burials has been observed within recent years. Flower pots with the foil wrapper inverted inside out have been witnessed by visitors to the cemetery along with shiny, reflective objects such as silver Christmas ornaments placed at a burial site. To be "upside down" in Ki-Kongo language literally means "to die" and inverted objects or those objects turned upside down are meant to be a signal to the spirit of the deceased.2 Those who are "upside down" or "dead" are considered to be the strongest because they are with the ancestors.3

One has to wonder if the living descendants of those persons buried at Randolph Cemetery are aware of these practices as having their roots in West African spirituality and if so would they continue to pass these practices along to future generations. In an effort to ensure these practices continue the CRBRC is painstakingly reaching out to the family members to make them aware of the cultural and historical significance of the cemetery.

1Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. (Random House: New York, 1983). 135.
2 Ibid, 142.
3 Ibid.