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Levi Jordan

Hidden Power: Burial Practices from an African-American Slave and Tenant Community

by David Bruner

See Maria Franklin's page on this web for her comments on this paper and the others delivered in this session.

Lizzie Johnson's Gravestone at the Juden Cemetery

Included here with permission of Cassie Johnson

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The Juden Cemetery was in active use during the time of slavery, through emancipation, and into recent decades. This research places the artifacts discovered in the Juden Cemetery in context with the artifacts recovered from the slave and tenant quarters, the historical documentation relating to the plantation, and the oral history of the community. By framing the contextual associations of the artifacts as part of a social dialogue, artifacts and features from the Juden Cemetery can be interpreted as symbols of community power and resistance. The symbolic attributes of these artifacts were hidden from Anglo-European surveillance through the re-use of material from the plantation landscape. Further, there is provocative evidence that the cognitive framework surrounding some of the symbolic forms found at the Jordan Plantation and the Juden Cemetery have been adapted from Kongo cosmological attributes.

The archaeological excavations of slave and tenant farmer living quarters at the Levi Jordan Plantation have provided insights into the dynamics of a community of African-Americans founded in 1848. The study of this community has, in turn, opened up paths of research which can reveal aspects of African-American cultural heritage. One such aspect which has been researched from the Jordan Plantation is evidence that certain members of the slave and tenant farmer community performed specialized task roles, that were not directed or condoned by the plantation owners. Evidence has been found for such roles as a political leader, a Shell/bone carver, a munitions/metal worker, and a curer.

My thesis work sought to explore how the African-American community of the Jordan plantation resisted oppression through their burial practices. This paper will focus on how the slaves and tenants displayed materials in their cemetery that held symbolic importance for their community. Of special importance to this study was the discovery of materials in the cemetery that can be interpreted as sharing symbolic meaning with symbols discovered in two discrete contexts through the excavations of the slave and tenant cabins. This symbol is similar to the Kongo Cosmogram found in parts of west and central Africa.

Death records reveal that the cemetery associated with the Jordan Plantation was referred to as the "Juden" cemetery by a least a few individuals from the African-American community, and this name for the cemetery will be used within this work. The Juden Cemetery was established along the southwestern boundary of Jordan’s property, and is known to have been in use as early as 1881 based on the date from the earliest tombstone present. Oral narratives given by the surrounding African-American community indicates that the cemetery was in use during slavery. The unpublished diary of one of Levi Jordan’s granddaughters, Sallie McNeill, makes some references to the structures of the plantation landscape, but no mention is made of the Juden cemetery African-American burial practices.


The Juden Cemetery study utilized a combination of data from archaeological surface survey, historical documentation, and oral narratives. The surface survey of the Juden Cemetery recorded all material items found on the surface of the cemetery, the orientation of the graves, the types of markers used on the graves, and the proximity of the graves to each other. The first goal of this study was to ascertain how the burial patterns at the Juden Cemetery correlated with other burial patterns. Did the slaves and tenants from the Juden Cemetery bury their dead in a way which is reflective of the traditional African-American cemeteries, or did they conform more to the traditional Anglo-European burial pattern? If they were a synthesis of the two traditions, how can an investigation of the synthesis provide insight into the lives of the African-American community from the Jordan Plantation? The second project for this study was to examine how, if at all, the burial practices of the Juden cemetery operated as a form of resistance to Anglo-European domination.

To answer the question of which burial practices the slaves and tenants utilized, two models for comparison have been created. These models are constructed from past historical and anthropological research. While there are many burial traditions the African-American community could have utilized, the slaves and tenants would have had the most exposure to the African-American and Anglo-European burial patterns.

The Anglo-European burial practices model is based on a catalogue of cemeteries in Texas by cultural geographer Terry G. Jordan’s work (43) identifies the following four traits indicative of the Anglo-European burial tradition in Texas:

Graves marked with a tombstone - The marker typically having the name, date of birth and death. The marker may have an indication of familial relations to the deceased. When iconography is displayed on the marker, it will be associated with Anglo-European traditions.

Graves aligned east-west with the feet of the interred individual to the east.

The wife of a deceased individual being buried to the left of the husband

Graves arranged in rows and columns in a fairly uniform manner

The African-American model is based upon a comprehensive study of African-American art forms by Thompson. His text, Flash of the Spirit, (30) records a variety of types of burial customs found in African-American cemeteries. This model is supplemented by Jordan’s findings in African-American cemeteries in Texas:

The presence of surface offerings on the graves - These have been recorded in a variety of forms: last used objects of the dead, favored objects of the dead, lamps, pipes of all kinds, vehicle effigies, and seashells.

Bottle trees: Glass shards and bottles hung from the branches of trees in and around the cemetery.

Cemeteries located near waterways

Trees or other plants intentionally seeded or transplanted on or beside the graves.

Graves in family clusters spread throughout the cemetery, with the grave orientations not always being east-west.

After comparing the burial patterns of the Juden Cemetery to the Anglo-European and African-American burial models, the degree to which the Juden Cemetery exhibits (or does not exhibit) traits from these models can be described. The burial practices from the Juden Cemetery can then be examined in light of acceptance or resistance to the burial practices of the dominating Anglo-European society.


The investigation of the Juden Cemetery revealed that it contained attributes from both Anglo-European and African-American cemeteries. Grave orientations included 96 east-west interments, 4 west- east interments, and 20 north-south interments. Some areas of the cemetery contained graves without uniform orientations.

Grave orientations by number of graves
Grave Orientation Total
East-west 96
West-east 4
North-south 20
Indiscernible 20
Total # of graves 140
  A variety of grave markers and cemetery artifacts were utilized in the Juden Cemetery. Some of the markers conform to the Anglo-European tradition of inscribed tombstones, while others do no conform to the Anglo-European burial pattern. Out of a total of 140 grave depressions, 37 graves with markers were discovered in the Juden Cemetery. Five markers are of particular interest because of the way they have been adapted from their original function to serve as grave markers. There are examples of railroad rails being used as grave markers, and one as a cemetery artifact. Further, iron pipes were discovered, 2 that had been driven into the ground and served as grave markers, and two that had been placed in the middle of graves that already had markers.

[images of these grave markers will be inserted here at some point].

The following section will focus on an interpretation of how these cemetery markers and artifacts serve to represent aspects of a symbolic structure previously defined through the excavations of the slave and tenant quarters. The symbolic structure in question is believed to be an adaptation of the Kongo Cosmogram. A cosmogram is a diagram that symbolizes aspects of a culture’s world view, philosophy, and religion.

The Kongo Cosmogram has been characterized by Wyatt MacGaffey [citation] as "a Greek cross [+] marked on the ground". The horizontal "line represents (a) boundary" and the vertical line being "…ambivalently both the path leading across the boundary, as to the cemetery, and the vertical path of power linking ‘the above’ with ‘the below’" (cited in Thompson 1983:108). The cross figure of the cosmogram is depicted within a circle; the cross element of the cosmogram is called Yowa, in the Kongo language.

This cosmogram is represented in the Kongo typically as a design drawn upon the ground (Thompson 1983: 108-111); however, aspects of the cosmogram can be found in the designs of masks in Kongo and Zaire.

"…the Kidumu dancers among the Teke-Tsaayi of Congo (sic) Brazzaville…have the perfectly round shape of the Congolese image of the cosmos. This cosmos, like the masks, has a horizontal midline dividing it into an upper and lower half-circle. The upper half is the world of the living, while the lower half if the world of the dead or ancestors. But in some contexts, the midline is said to correspond to water, or to a read snake that lives in the river. In such cases, it mediates the distinction between the two worlds, or changes the relationship between things located in the upper and lower parts of the circle" (Jacobson-Widding 1991:35) [need to obtain full citation for the bibliography].

The excavations of the slave and tenant quarters have produced two examples of the Kongo Cosmogram. First, a brick found in the wall debris of the cabin of the hypothesized "political leader" had the cosmogram inscribed on its surface.

Two fragments of brick with a "cosmogram" carved into one of its surfaces. The enclosed cross symbols was raised on the surfaces after the brick was fired. From Brown 1995 (2).

Second, four sub-floor deposits found underneath the cabin of the curer are both spatially and symbolically commensurate with the structure of the Kongo Cosmogram (Brown 1994).

This drawing in the paragraph above is described below. From Brown 1995 (2).

"The first of these deposits [1, above] discovered was the curer’s/magician’s kit, found in the south-eastern corner of the cabin. Immediately adjacent to this kit, but likely placed below the floorboards of the cabin [Ken Brown] discovered an extremely large quantity of nails, spikes, real and ‘fake’ knife blades, and small porcelain dolls, which appear to be all that remains of a wooden Nkisi.

"The second deposit [2, above] discovered contained seven coins. This set of coins consisted of four quarters, two dimes and a half-dime…The coins had been tightly wrapped together inside a coarsely woven cloth object…the coins were placed so that they were ‘standing’ in a nearly vertical fashion on their sides. They faced north-south. The coins were also carefully arranged such that the perforated half-dime was on the outside facing south, then came two of the quarters (both dated 1853) then an 1853 dime, then the other two coins (both dated 1858).

"The third deposit [three, above] discovered consisted of a wide variety of objects within and surrounding two complete cast iron kettles. The kettles had been placed below the floorboards immediately inside the cabin’s door. The kettles had been positioned one inside the other with a few small, metal, ocean shell, glass, and bone fragments placed inside the upper kettle….a number of objects were then placed around, or in two lines radiating out from these kettles. Toward the northeast were two small Confederate military buttons, several large bones, metal chain links, and a bayonet. Toward the southeast were several more lengths of metal chain, numerous large metal objects (including a hinge, spike, bolt and a piece of a plow), several ocean shells, a quartz crystal, glass fragments, and two additional Confederate military buttons.

"The fourth deposit [four, above] discovered was found placed into a hearth of the cabin. Sometime after the construction of the hearth, the bricks at the back of the hearth, below the chimney, were removed and a hole was excavated into the fill and dirt below this portion of the hearth. A clay plaster surface was put over the bottom of the hole, which was then covered with ash, broken up and heavily burned ocean shell…and a few nails" (Brown 1994: 111-114).

The Juden Cemetery contains several markers and cemetery artifacts that function, in part, as components which represent aspects of this cosmogram. First, is the presence of the railroad rail that was positioned between two groups of two groves of Yucca plants. This railroad rail is set in the ground such that the bottom half of a circle of iron faces to the east.

Cemetery artifact described in above paragraph.

Based upon the similarities between the cosmogram identified in the slave and tenant quarters and the Kongo cosmogram; a correlation can be drawn to the lower half of the railroad to the lower half-circle of the cosmogram. Given that [David Bruner's thesis elaborates on this hypothesis more] there was an intended connection between the railroad artifact and the cosmogram from the slave and tenant quarters, the railroad equipment can be interpreted here as a symbol associating the cemetery with the world of the dead.

The three other pieces of railroad equipment used distinctly as grave markers lack the half-circle face of the cemetery artifact mentioned above. All three are vertical bars with a "T" shaped head [slide 14]. Based upon the half-moon shaped railroad equipment representing a component of the cosmogram, the "T" shape of these other railroad artifacts represent the lower half of the Yowa crossthe horizontal line representing the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead, and the vertical line representing the path to the grave.

One of the "T" shaped markers at one of the grave depressions.

The Sugar Mill, which functioned as part of the plantation until it fell into disuse in 1888, offers the probable location of where the railroad equipment came from. In the ruins of the Sugar Mill which stands today, there is a pile of railroad track pieces which are identical in size and shape to the portions of the "T" shaped railroad artifacts mentioned above. This adds an extra dimension to these artifacts as "…things belonging to, or last used by, the deceased". There are primary historical documents that state that when the Sugar Cane needed to be processed, Jordan worked the slaves 20 hours a day. The possibility arise that the use of the railroad rails from the sugar mill represents the last used objects of slaves that were worked to death during these periods.

In the Juden Cemetery there are two upright metal pipes used as grave markers,2 upright metal pipes used as artifacts, and 2 upright pipes as cemetery artifacts. The use of upright pipes in African-American cemeteries has been identified by Thompson: "…deposits of pipes of all kinds, representing voyage, through smoke or water, from this world to the next…" (1983:139). The vertical line of transportation represented by the upright pipes, corresponds with the vertical line of the Yowa cross; symbolizing the path between the world ‘above’ of the living and the world ‘below’ of the dead.


Pipe capped off with bolt.

Two of the upright pipes were capped off at the top by a large bolt. While there is no record at all of upright pipes being ‘sealed’ in African-American cemeteries, there is ethnographic evidence from the Nyroro of Uganda that "…if a person died very ill-disposed toward someone in the family, the mouth and anus of the corpse might be stopped up by clay; it was supposed that this would prevent the ghost from escaping and causing injury to the people against whom it had a grudge" (Skinner 1973: 379).

Given that the upright pipes of the Juden Cemetery might have functioned to allow transportation of the soul between the worlds, then the capping of the pipes might have served the same function as in the orifice sealing among the Nyoro. It should be noted, however, there are no spatial or material correlates in the Juden Cemetery to support this hypothesis. The individuals buried with capped pipes are not noticeably segregated from the rest of the graves, not do they exhibit any distinctive difference in grave artifacts.

The Juden Cemetery is not the only example of cultural elements from the Kongo being found in an African-American cemetery. Thompson notes that "Nowhere is Kongo-Angola influence on the New World more pronounced, or profound, than in black traditional cemeteries throughout the South of the United States" (1983: 132).

The Juden Cemetery Landscape

There are two important aspects to the landscape of the Juden Cemetery; its’ positioning in relation to a waterway, and the presence of two copses of Yucca plants within the cemetery. Jacobson-Widding cites the important role waterways play in Kongo cosmology in acting as the ambiguous mediary between the world of the living and the world of the dead "…the boundary between the two worlds consists of the water of pools and rivers (1991:177). Here the symbol of the waterway functions in a similar vein as the horizontal line of the Yowa cross represents the boundary between worlds. Archaeologist Leland Ferguson has recovered Colono Ware bowls that have the Yowa cross inscribed on them from "…rivers adjacent to the old rice plantations" (Ferguson 1992:114) (21). This correlation reinforces the possible importance of waterways as an aspect of the Kongo Cosmogram in the landscape of the Juden Cemetery.

Regional maps show that the slew which runs roughly north-south to the cemetery is a tributary to the San Bernard River which runs out into the Gulf of Mexico. This same slew extends up alongside the Jordan Plantation main house and the slave quarters. It is possible, though no documentation exits to support the premise, that the slew was used as a waterway to raft items to the plantation. If so, some form of water craft could also have been used to carry a body to the Juden Cemetery.

Thompson also defines how plants are used in traditional Kongo burials:

"Trees planted on graves also signify the spirit; their roots literally journey to the other world. Hence Kongo elders plant trees on graves, explaining: "This tree is a sign of spirit, on its way to the other world." The mooring of spirit with trees on graves appears in Southern Haiti, where the rationale is phrased this way: "Trees live after us, death is not the end." In the continental United States, at Hazelhurst, Mississippi, we learn that "at the funeral preachers are given a chance [???] with their carefully composed sermons. It is then that the evergreen is planted on the grave. These trees are identified with the departed, and if the tree flourishes, all is well with the soul: (1983:139).

While no grave markers were visible from any vantage point outside of the copses of Yucca, an informant who came by the cemetery while [I] was researching was conducting fieldwork recalled that "…this entire place (the cemetery) was all cleared at one point, now it all grown over…the old used the Yucca to mark their graves, I dunno why, they just did…there’s quite a few markers all in the Yucca, but it all grown up over them.". The choice of Yucca plants as an African-American grave artifact has only been cited in one other instance. In Huger, South Carolina, Archaeologist Cynthia Connor found Yucca plants being used as grave artifacts along with cedar trees (Connor 1989:54).

Yucca plants in part of the cemetery, described above.

This study posits that through the reuse of the railroad equipment and pipes the slaves and tenants attempted to make a statement on the ‘public/non-public’ land of the cemetery. By adapting the use of items which the surrounding white community would not question as being non-Anglo-European items, and therefore not symbols of African-American individuality, the tenants from the Jordan Community resisted the surveillance of the white community by imbuing these objects with a symbolic character that only they understood.

Strong evidence exists that suggests that the Jordan Community Cosmogram has antecedents in the Kongo Cosmogram. However, it should be noted that analogy drawn here is an inductively generated model that requires further testing.


The material presented within this thesis has contributed to the understanding of African-American burial practices as they evolved from the result of a dynamic interchange of cultures. The analysis of the burial practices from the Juden Cemetery revealed that elements from both Anglo-European and African-American cemetery traditions were employed: the Anglo-European burial traditions of groups of graves marked with a traditional Anglo-European tombstone; and the African-American burial traditions of the cemetery being adorned with bottles and glass shards, being located near a waterway, trees or other foliage planted on or beside the graves, and graves being in clusters of different orientations throughout the cemetery.

The interpretation of the cemetery artifacts, placed into context with the excavations of the slave and tenant quarters, revealed how certain cemetery features and artifacts held multiple functions and meanings to serve as symbols of community solidarity and resistance against the surrounding white culture. Through the re-use of these seemingly benign material items, the slave and tenant community constructed a system of symbols that represented aspect of their world view.

Further research that examines African-American cemeteries in both urban and rural settings, from slavery and after emancipation, are needed. The potential exists for discovering how African-American communities in disparate settings utlized cemetery landscapes as arenas for resistance.

This version does not include references for the in-text citations, but they will be added at a later date.
David Bruner 1998

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