The Workings of Race and Nationhood in African American, Arab, Chaldean, Chinese, and Jewish Cemeteries in 19th-Century America

AHA Session 59
Friday, January 5, 2018: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Columbia 9 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Kirsten L. Fermaglich, Michigan State University
Death and Burial among Arab and Chaldean Americans
Rosina Hassoun, Saginaw Valley State University
An Ocean Apart: Chinese American Segregated Burials
Sue Fawn Chung, University of Nevada at Las Vegas
Jewish Rural Cemeteries and Local Constructions of Citizenship in 19th-Century New York City
Allan Amanik, Brooklyn College, City University of New York
Kirsten L. Fermaglich, Michigan State University

Session Abstract

This session explores the phenomenon of separate burial among African American, Chinese, Jewish, Arab, and Chaldean Americans over the course of the nineteenth century. It asks how separate cemetery spaces among American minority or immigrant communities have both drawn on and reinforced racial distinctions in the United States, aiding in nation building or critiquing forms of American nationalism. Looking at both groups of people who chose to migrate to the United States or those who were forcibly trafficked, these papers’ comparative perspective illustrates how death practices served as both tools of integration or a means to signal difference. Ultimately, questions of exclusion or inclusion in death can offer a novel perspective on the interplay of race, national identity, and nation-making in nineteenth-century America.

Kami Fletcher and Sue Fawn Chung trace the social and political meanings of separating the dead through respective case-studies of racially segregated cemeteries in Baltimore and the American Southwest. Fletcher traces the burial rights of Blacks, enslaved and free, highlighting how the founding of white and black burial grounds upheld boundaries of whiteness and white supremacy as Maryland transitioned from colony to state. Chung traces similar themes among Chinese migrants to California and Nevada in the mid-nineteenth century via discriminatory migration law and its influence upon racist cemetery policies that prohibited Chinese interment in white grounds. Fearing vandalism of graves or unable to perform ancestral veneration because of limited American entry of wives and other kin, Chinese laborers either modified burial practice or exhumed their dead for reburial in native villages overseas. In each case, although separate cemeteries reflected racialized laws and attitudes of their respective regions of the country, they could also serve to challenge these structures for the Chinese and African Americans who buried within them.

For immigrant groups that received more ambiguous racial designation in America, co-ethnicity, religion, or region of origin remained paramount in burial decisions. Rosina Hassoun traces that interplay among Arab Orthodox Christians, Catholic Chaldeans, and Muslim Arab immigrants to the Detroit Metropolitan area. Although religious differences separated these communities, they shared a common drive to bury separately from other ethnic Christians. Allan Amanik traces similar phenomena in New York’s first Jewish rural cemeteries founded in the mid-nineteenth century. On the one hand, these grounds marked Jewish social inclusion by modeling lavish cemeteries of their middle-class Protestant peers and by embracing spatial distance from Catholic counterparts. On the other, even the city’s most religiously progressive Reform congregations emphasized ritual law to separate Jewish and Christian dead. In Detroit or in New York City, each group’s commitment to bury among peers and to retain collective identity through death spoke volumes to the civic freedoms and social fluidity that American society conferred for successful claims to whiteness.

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