Flowers for Black History Month: Grave Bouquets Placed at Birmingham’s Greenwood Cemetery for George and Eliza Taylor, and Abraham and Abbie Farmer Harris
By Donna Casaceli
Bouquets Mark Their Graves
George and Eliza Taylor and Abraham and Abbie Farmer Harris were African Americans who lived in early Birmingham and who are buried in Greenwood Cemetery. Until recently, their stories and heritage were unknown, and three of the four had no grave marker. When it was recently learned that Birmingham’s Black history revolves around these people, the Friends of the Birmingham Museum provided funds to recognize the location of their graves with silk flowers during Black History Month. This effort involved some focused research and effort to prepare bouquets that reflect the symbolism of our nation’s Black History, and this article explains the meaning behind the flowers used for our bouquets. The bouquets will be left in place during the month of February, but funds have already been raised for the Taylors’ grave markers, and Abraham will be added to Abbie’s marker as well.
The Flowers’ Meaning to Enslaved and Freed African Americans
The Language of Flowers in Black History
The flowers used in the arrangements are associated with the cultural practices used by African Americans before and after the Civil War. There is no “standard” Black History Month designated flower; rather, the arrangements that I made for the Taylors and Harrises are an expression of my research and understanding thus far.
Periwinkle – This plant is thought to be one of the most popular flowers brought to the graves of the enslaved. Today the Periwinkle Initiative is an organization that is creating a database of enslaved burials. They are so named because this nearly evergreen plant with small blue flowers still persists over many of the graves enslaved African Americans, allowing them to be located and recorded. The flower today signifies the endurance of the enslaved Americans and their legacy.
Yucca plant – Yucca is another plant that marks many early graves even today. It can live hundreds of years and represents eternity. In many African American communities it was also traditionally thought that yucca kept restless spirits in the grave.
Daffodils – Daffodils have been associated with cemeteries for a long time, with one variety even known as the “Cemetery Ladies.” The daffodil was also used to mark graves because it is a perennial, and because of its hardy nature. Also due to its ability to spread, it was known as a “pass-along” plant for those who could not afford to buy the bulbs to mark a grave. Many enslaved cemeteries have daffodils and other like perennials growing throughout.
Cedar branches – the branches in our Greenwood bouquets represent the cedar trees that are commonly found on African American Burial grounds. The cedar was sometimes used as a grave marker because it is an evergreen, and represents everlasting life in many cultures. It is also known as the Cemetery Tree in many parts of the U.S. South, with a traditional belief that the tree keeps away evil spirits.
Sea Shells – Although found in mourning rituals in several cultures, the seashell in enslaved African American culture held an especially significant meaning. The seashell symbolized the concept that it was the sea that brought the people to the shores of America in life, and it was the sea that would take them back to Africa – and freedom – in death. Many graves were covered in seashells, and shells were used well into the 20th century to mark African American graves. The tradition is traced back to many cultures in Africa who still use seashells in mourning rituals. People still place seashells – and coins - on graves. They are placed as a sign that the person buried is still remembered, and that they had a visitor.