An Old African American Cemetery Reveals a History of Racial Disparities in Life Expectancy

VCUGravesStudents in the “Sociology of Aging and the Life” Course at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond have been conducting research and sprucing up East End Cemetery in the city where thousands of African Americans were buried as long ago as 1880. While clearing away brush, trash, and weeds the students came across several headstones that had been obscured. As part of the project, the students are recording names and birth and death dates from as many grave markers as they can find. To date, roughly 700 out of an estimated 13,000 have been recorded.

Susan Bodnar-Green, an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University, reports that “we are using the cemetery as a place to obtain data to examine things such as demographic transition, racial disparities in morbidity and mortality and to examine concepts such as infant mortality, and gender and class differences in life expectancy.” In one area of the cemetery, students found the gravesites of 65 to 75 babies, aged between newborns and around 2 years old, all between 1960 and 1964.

The project’s other goal, she said, is to help reclaim the dignity of the individuals buried in East End Cemetery, and to underscore how the ways in which people are treated in life are often reflected in the ways they are treated in death. “Institutional structures such as racism, exclusion and white supremacy not only affected individuals during life, it has been carried over into death as exemplified by the neglect and indifference to our city’s Black cemeteries,” Dr. Bodnar-Green said. “Right down the road from the East End and Evergreen cemeteries is Oakwood Cemetery which is being carefully cared for and tended, especially the interment sites of the wealthy and Confederate soldiers. This is a profound commentary on how we value certain people and not others.”

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