"No Stone Unturned: Preserving Slave Cemeteries in Alabama." An APR news podcast
The Alabama Public Radio newsroom spent nine months investigating efforts to preserve slave cemeteries in the state. An estimated four hundred thousand enslaved people were held in Alabama before the Civil War. Historians say many of these newly freed blacks stayed in the state following emancipation in 1863. APR spoke with some of their descendants and heard about problems in locating the burial sites of their ancestors.
“Knowing that this cemetery is there, and it is just dwindling away, it’s just being washed away. It’s just thrown away. It’s like taking my grandfather, my great grandfather, or father or my mother and knowing that they’re buried there, and just trashing them,” said Patricia Kemp of Tuscaloosa.
Please find Alabama Public Radio’s entry for the Murrow Award for Best Podcast, titled “No Stone Unturned: Preserving Slave Cemeteries in Alabama.”
We began with forty unknown graves.
Please click here to subscribe to the podcast, first published in November, 2022.
An estimated 435,000 slaves were held in Alabama before the Civil War. Following passage of the thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution, many of these newly freed people left the south. Still others remained in Alabama to live out their lives. Their descendants say the cemeteries where these former slaves were laid to rest are slowly disappearing. Some are being lost to trees and scrub brush, while others being are snapped up by developers and paved over.
APR spent nine months, with no budget, investigating the effort to find and preserve slave burial grounds in the state. We also heard from the families of these kidnapped Africans. Along with the bondage of their ancestors, there was the system of record keeping that reduced these people to nameless property. This leaves the descendants of the enslaved with the nearly impossible job of tracing their family roots—a situation not shared by their white neighbors.
APR began its search at a two-acre spot known as the “Old Prewitt Slave Cemetery,’ set up by plantation owner John Welch Prewitt of Northport, near Tuscaloosa. Only a handful of tombstones and faded burial markers remains. The news team invited Len Strozier of Omega Mapping Services in Fortson, Georgia to scan Old Prewitt with ground penetrating radar to find hidden and unknown graves.
A half hour preliminary survey uncovered forty.
A two-hundred-year-old burial yard may sound like a distant issue to most Alabamians, but not to former World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Deontay Wilder. His home in Northport sits next door to the Old Prewitt Slave Cemetery. In Wilder’s first ever interview on his connection to the burial site, he told APR of his impressions upon visiting this spot for the first time.
“To understand and know where you are, and what you’re setting your feet on, and what occurred in certain times of the years, that you don’t nothing about,” Wilder told APR.
Our next stop was the twentieth anniversary workshop of the Alabama Cemetery Preservation Alliance. That’s where we met Olley Ballard, a retired magnet school principal in Huntsville. She’s searching for clues to the burial site of her great-great grandfather who was enslaved in 1842. The workshop focused on issues like cleaning tombstones and repairing cemetery gates. Ballard’s great great grandfather appears to have neither. This punctuates the inherent unfairness African Americans experience when tracing their ancestry or preserving family burial sites.
This situation isn’t limited to the south. APR travelled to Bridgewater Township in New Jersey, where efforts are underway to preserve the Prince Rodgers Slave Cemetery, which is nestled between two suburban homes. African American residents of New Jersey are often angered when they learn, some for the first time, that eleven thousand Africans were enslaved in the Garden State at the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
APR concluded its investigation with a frank discussion on the difficulties of dealing with slave cemeteries and the impact of enslavement when people, both white and African American, appear unwilling to openly discuss racial issues, including slavery.