The African-American Grave Markers of McNary

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by Jim Griffith
(Part 2 in a BorderLore series on ethnicity and occupation in grave marker folk art)

The former sawmill town of McNary is in Arizona’s White Mountains on State Highway 260, southeast of Show Low. It was given its present name in 1924, when the Cady Lumber Company of McNary, Louisiana, purchased it and moved its operations there. The move was a thorough one, including equipment and employees. Among these was the African-American labor force. As the company grew, Hispanics, Anglos and Apaches also moved into McNary, Arizona. Each group had its own part of town, its own church, and its own school. The African-American section was called “The Quarters.” The company changed its name to the McNary Lumber Company, and eventually to Southwest Forest Industries. It also started operations in Flagstaff. In 1979, following a fire in which the mill burned down, the entire operation was moved to Flagstaff.

When I visited McNary in August of 1983, I was directed to the “old cemetery” in The Quarters. There I found a series of thirteen markers that are unlike anything I have seen in Arizona. They are of sawn planks (after all, this was a sawmill town). Each of the thirteen was notched in some way about two thirds up its height, forming what appears to be a “head” and a “body”. The “heads” were diamond-shaped, round, triangular, and rectangular. Twelve of the markers were free-standing; one was a panel attached to the head of a fence surrounding the grave. On one marker, the person’s name and death date were spelled out with flat-headed nails; in the case of the fenced-in grave, the nails appear to have been decorative as well as functional for attachment to the fence stake. Readers familiar with West African sculpture will have seen illustrations of nails used for extra-structural purposes.

Finding a unique series of markers such as this necessarily raises some questions. It is possible to wonder whether they represent an older, African American tradition of anthropomorphic sculpture. I incline in this direction, but my opinion is based on pure speculation. In his short treatment of African-American cemetery art, John Vlach does not mention any markers like the ones in this series. There is elsewhere in his study an illustration of an “anthropomorphic” newel post on a staircase, which, like the McNary series, is cut out of a plank. This is from Milton, North Carolina, and dates to the mid-19th Century.

So in the end, we are left with thirteen markers in an African-American cemetery. Or, rather, with my photographs of those markers. When I visited McNary in 1983, over half the markers had fallen down, and several of these were split and rotting. I don’t know what, if anything, remains in 2016 except for a lot of questions. If any of my readers can give me information on this subject, I’d be grateful to hear from you at jgriffi@mindspring.com.

(All photos by Jim Griffith; all taken 8/8/83 at “The Quarters” old cemetery.)

Fenced-in grave with “head” marker a one end.

Fenced-in grave with “head” marker on one end.

Detail of “head” piece from #1, showing possibly decorative use of nails.

Detail of “head” piece from #1, showing possibly decorative use of nails.

Jim Griffith photo

“Head”marker for Percy Taylor, 1940, with name and date spelled out in flat-headed nails.

Jim Griffith photo

“Head” marker.

Jim Griffith photo

Grave with “head” and “foot” markers.

Jim Griffith photo

Fallen “head” marker, with no “shoulders”.

Jim Griffith photo

Partly rotten, fallen “head” marker. Several other markers were in similar or worse condition.

Reference

Vlach, John Michael, 1978, The African-American Tradition in Decorative Arts. Cleveland: The Cleveland Museum of Art. (The chapter on cemeteries is on pp.139-150; the newel post is illustrated on p. 42.)

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