"No Stone Unturned: Preserving Slave Cemeteries in Alabama" An APR news documentary
Alabama voters head to the polls next week for the midterm elections. One ballot item would abolish slavery in the state. The vote takes place one hundred and fifty seven years after the thirteenth amendment ended the practice nationally. Historians say many of the estimated four hundred thousand enslaved people, who were freed in 1865, chose to live out their lives in Alabama. APR spoke to some of their descendants who say they’re still dealing with the impact of the slave trade. The Alabama Public Radio newsroom spent nine months investigating one aspect of that. Namely, the effort to preserve slave cemeteries in the state. APR's documentary is titled "No Stone Unturned."
“I got all my equipment in the back of the Honda CRV. How’s that for efficiency and good engineering?” asked Len Strozier during a quiet morning in a wooded area on the Black Warrior River, north of Tuscaloosa. He's getting ready to go to work.
“It all scissors out like that,” he said. The scissoring refers to a collapsible rig about the size of a grocery store shopping cart. It has big black wheels, a box on top with buttons and a small view screen. There’s another box down below.
“Alright, this is ground penetrating radar machine. This is two GPS machines,” said Strozier.
A radar antenna that looks for airplanes typically points up. Strozier’s antenna looks down. What interests him lies underground…
It’s just a matter of putting it together,” quips Strozier. He uses his equipment to scan for things like buried water pipes that are leaking. That’s about thirty percent of what he does. Today is how he spends most of his time.
He’s looking for bodies.
“Just walking around, and there’s one right there. That’s a casketed burial,” said Strozier after working less than a minute. “Right now, I see an air pocket where a body was buried in the ground. As the body is placed in the ground. If it’s not embalmed, or protected with a vault, it all breaks down, It degrades…decomposes—including the wooden casket,” he observed.
Strozier runs Omega Mapping Services in Fortson, Georgia. APR news invited him to scan this two acre spot near Tuscaloosa. We’re at the Old Prewett Slave Cemetery. It was set up in the 1820’s by John Welch Prewett, a local plantation owner. The one unmarked grave Strozier found was just for starter. A more complete total came later.
“In less than thirty minutes, forty. Just walking around. I’ve seen forty burials out here,” said Strozier.
There’s a handful of tombstones and plain burial markers at Old Prewett. Nowhere close to the number of graves Strozier found. This isn’t just an issue involving the dead. There are the living as well.
“My father drove us there,” said Patricia Kemp. “I was probably…maybe I want to say six or seven. Then, he’d drive to a place and he’d tell us what it is, or who they were. So, that’s what I remember.”
As an adult, Kemp did some research and she thinks some of her ancestors are buried at the Old Prewett Slave Cemetery. By that time, the burial yard was disappearing as trees and scrub brush took over. At one point, Alabama listed Old Prewett as one of the state's most endangered places.
“Knowing that that cemetery is there, and it is just dwindling away, it’s just being washed away. It’s just thrown away,” said Kemp. “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.”
Old Prewett isn’t the only slave cemetery in Alabama.
Researchers from the University of Alabama in Huntsville say up to two hundred slaves rest here, at the Mount Paran Cemetery just south of the Tennessee border. That doesn’t count the estimated ten thousand enslaved people believed to be buried nearby in Huntsville.
“I was able to find my great great grandfather listed,” said Ollie Ballard. She thinks that ancestor was one of them. He was enslaved in Huntsville in 1842.
“He was on the Longwood Plantation,” she said. “And, we found his name, and then his son’s name…Caswell, and Caswell, junior. And, we were able to follow him to his death.”
But, that doesn’t mean Ballard can visit her great, great grandfather’s grave site. She’s not sure where that is. There are oral histories told by family members and the few records Ballard could find-- but that’s all. And if you’ve never heard a story like that before, we met someone who has.
“All the time, all the time. That is…that is…one of the most outrageous,” said Ethel Alexander. She’s with the Birmingham African American Genealogy Group, the largest of its kind in the state. She says even if family members find the cemetery where their enslaved ancestors are buried, questions often remain
“They may not see anything but a rock,” Alexander observed. “They may not see nothing but tree. You know, you’re not going to be to say ‘oh, there’s my grandfather…great, great, great slave.’”
Back at the Old Prewett Slave Cemetery in Northport, Alabama-- Len Strozier has been doing some thinking. His preliminary scan with ground penetrating radar showed forty unmarked graves. So, now he’s ready to make an educated guess about what he calls the other unmarks.
“I would say there would be at least two hundred unmarks, in this acre and a half, at least that, without a doubt,” said Strozier.
Each of these unknown burial sites can represent a mystery to a family somewhere. But, you don’t have to have an ancestor buried at Old Prewett to be involved. For example…There's Tuscaloosa native and former world heavyweight boxing championship Deontay Wilder.
The parking lot at the Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports Commission is especially busy today. Onlookers form a ring around a life sized bronze statue, still covered with a black tarp. The chatter seems divided between the art work and the man who posed for it.
Former world heavyweight boxing champion Deontay Wilder is from Tuscaloosa. He still lives here. Wilder made the rounds in the VIP room just before the statue in his honor was to be unveiled. Some fans talked about his five years as champ. Others focused on his ninety three percent knockout rate. APR news was there for something else.
“To go down there, you can like feel the energy and the power of it,” said Wilder.
During a quiet moment, Wilder talked about visiting the Old Prewett Slave Cemetery. It wasn’t a long trip. Wilder lives almost next door to the burial site. He says he didn’t know about it when he moved in his new home in Northport. But, he soon did.
“You know how when you move into an area, and the neighbors come and greet you with pies and cakes,” said Wilder.
Instead of dessert, Wilder’s neighbors brought something else
“For me, I got greeted with important information. I got greeted with historic information and stuff like that,” recalled Wilder.
That included stories about Civil War plantation owner John Welch Prewett and the slave cemetery he set up in Northport in the 1820’s.
“It’s amazing to know that I have an untended graveyard, I literally mean on the side of me. It doesn’t spook me out or nothing like that,” he said.
“I don't know that a whole lot else stands out about him as except as a slave holder and a plantation owner,” said Doctor Joshua Rothman, of John Welch Prewett. “Other than that, he's a very wealthy man and kind of the late antebellum period.”
Rothman is head of the history department at the University of Alabama. His area of expertise is slavery. And, he’s heard his share of stories about Prewett, including the whoppers.
“So the two that I've heard the most are that he enslaved 1000 people, and was the biggest slave holder in Tuscaloosa County. And there's another story about there being like bars of gold buried on his property,” recalled Rothman.
Rothman says he’s not sure one way or the other about the gold, but the slave count was more like one hundred and fifty, not a thousand.
“What's weird is that it's a story people told them they like, but you can look at the census. And you can see it's not true,” he said.
And if that’s not enough…
“There’s also the tale of a ghost walking on the site of the former home of Mr. and Mrs. John W. Prewett,” read Allison Hetzel, of the University of Alabama’s Theatre Department. This story comes from the Alabama state archives. It’s from a folder marked “negro folklore.”
"Mrs. Prewett, affectionately known as “Miss Betsy,” by the negroes, would visit the cabins with simple remedies when any of the slaves were ailing. It is claimed that Miss Betsy still walks on rainy nights, basket on arm. That story being shared by many of the better educated white farmers,” read Hetzell.
“If you tell yourself that story, and you genuinely believe it, then what is there to feel guilty about?” suggested Joshua Rothman.
“It's not a secret, for example, that there are a lot of stories that are have been told by white Southerners, over the course of many generations, trying to make slavery seem far less bad. And that's a very different kind of story than descendants of enslaved people are likely to tell,” he said.
And telling that story can be difficult. That’s because whites also kept the records. For the families and volunteers trying to preserve slave cemeteries or find the graves of lost relatives, that’s often where the trail goes cold.
Back at the Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports commission, everybody crowds around for the unveiling of Deontay Wilder’s statue…
“It was a treat,” said the champ. Wilder wasn’t referring to letting the crowd see his statue. But, rather the powerful experience of visiting the Old Prewett Slave Cemetery.
“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 said.
Wilder says he’s also ready to help out when it comes preserving Old Prewett. Not everyone can call on a celebrity to do that. Most of the work to rescue slave burial sites is done by African American families or volunteers. And, their effort apparently faces obstacles not shared by their white neighbors.
It’s check-in time at the Methodist Church in New Market’ Alabama, near the Tennessee border. The paperwork is being done at table one. Volunteers at table two are handing out sausage biscuits. There was also a side order of personal stories…
“I was able to find my great great grandfather,” said Olley Ballard from Huntsville. “He was on the Longwood Plantation. And, we found his name, and then his son’s name…Caswell, and Caswell, junior. And, we were able to follow him to his death.”
Ballard is hoping to find answers here today. She’s among one hundred people attending the twentieth annual workshop of the Alabama Cemetery Preservation Alliance.
Ballard says her great great grandfather was enslaved in Huntsville in 1842. The issue that brought her here today isn’t who he is, but rather where he is now.
“I’m so glad you asked that question,” she said. “Because he was on the Longwood Plantation. And so, I’m thinking, and based on what my forefathers said to me. That more than likely that my great great grandfather was on that plantation.”
And that’s possibly where he’s buried.
Today’s workshop featured speakers on cleaning tombstones and repairing cemetery gates. Ballard is one of only two African Americans in the audience. It’s not grave markers or gates that she came to talk about. Ballard is still working to find her great great grandfather’s burial site. We met someone who’s heard a lot of stories like that…
“All the time, all the time. That is…that is…it was one of the most outrageous,” said Ethel Alexander. She didn’t attend the cemetery workshop. We sat down with her at her home near Birmingham where she went through notebooks on her own family tree.
Alexander is past President of the Birmingham African American Genealogy Group. It’s the largest organization of its kind in the state.
‘ We weren’t really human beings. We were chattle…c.h.a.t.t.l.e,” she observed.
Alexander is referring to the lack of records on kidnapped Africans. The U.S. Archives says the first census that counted former slaves as people was in 1870. Alexander says, before that, most records were bills of sale…
“Say for instance, a planter, he dies, and they have to sell everything,” said Alexander. “The first thing they sell are their slaves, and they were sold before the animals. So we didn’t really have first names except the first names they would give you.”
You heard about Olley Ballard and her effort to find her great great grandfather’s burial site in Huntsville. Ethel Alexander says even if Ballard finds the slave cemetery she’s looking for, she may face another problem…
“They may not see anything but a rock. They may not see nothing but tree. You know, you’re not going to be to say ‘oh, there’s my grandfather…great, great, great slave,” said Alexander.
Back at the workshop of the Alabama Cemetery Preservation Alliance, Rusty Brenner is at work. He sells a spray called D-2. It’s used to clean tombstones. Olley Ballard’s great great grandfather may not have a burial marker of his own, but she says his life is still worth remembering
“They were landowners,” said Ballard. “Even though he was enslaved person in 1842, but 1903 he and wife owned one hundred and sixty acres of land. So, I’m proud and I want to pass it along generation to generation.”
And Ballard has a plan to do that, whether she finds his grave site or not.
“At presently, I’m working with the city of Huntsville and a group to erect a memorial that honors the enslaved people in Huntsville,” she said. “We have approximately fifteen thousand slaves and slaveholders, but we don’t have a grant.”
Money is an issue that comes up a lot on preserving slave burial sites. Some cemeteries only need upkeep. Slave burial grounds often need something like archeology to identity who’s there. Ballard says she hasn’t had much luck finding money for that.
“Many of the grants want you to preserve something,” Ballard noted. “Well, you now we’re looking to preserve words and where they used to be. They’re looking for buildings.”
That situation may be changing, slowly….
Members of Congress are considering what’s known as the African American Burial Grounds Preservation Act.
“There are so many sites in Alabama that are known and unknown,” said Alabama Democrat Terri Sewell. She’s a co-sponsor of the U.S. House version of that bill. The measure would enable the U.S. Park Service to create a burial site network. Sewell says it would also provide grants.
“Hopefully, we can speed up the clean-up, but also really direct people on how about doing the historical investigation on the amazing people who are buried there,” said Sewell.
Having a good idea is one thing. But, the burial site legislation has been in committee for three years. It was just was re-introduced back in February. Sewell says there’s nothing wrong with the bill itself.
“No, it was just technical issues about the partnership between the National Park Service and the network, and some very important provisions I wanted to flesh out when it comes to the grants,” Sewell contended.
But, until a final vote is made in Congress, the descendants of slaves and newly freed blacks can only wait. Back at the Alabama Cemetery Preservation Alliance workshop, it’s time for the door prizes. Winners with the lucky numbers pick from items including a tombstone cleaning kit.
Even if Congress passes the African American Burial Grounds Preservation Act, Olley Ballard may not get the one thing she’s looking for—the exact location of her great great grandfather’s gravesite in Huntsville.
“I know like to know that, definitely that this is location of Longwood Plantation. I would like to walk the grounds, touch the soil, and feel the presence of my ancestors. I would love to do that,” said Ballard.
And feelings like that are shared by others. Not just in Alabama, and not just in the south.
That wasn’t the only story Ballard told that day. Huntsville had a cemetery for slaves and newly freed people. That land was sold to the city. Ballard says it got lost in the fine print.
“And so, they had a stipulation in the deed that the colored cemetery must be protected, but it was not protected,” she said. Huntsville built a parking deck on that spot. APR heard a similar story with a different ending..
“So what happened was they were trying to widen this road Foothill Road in Bridgewater,” said Lorayn Allen.
“And the contractor looked up, and he says, Oh, my God, he said, there's a cemetery up here,” she recalled. “He says, ‘I think it's a slave cemetery.’ I don’t know how he knew it, he just knew it.”
Allen’s slave cemetery isn’t in Alabama. It’s not even in the south. In fact, to talk with her about it, I had to fly coach. Bridgewater, New Jersey is about a half hour southwest of Newark Liberty International Airport. It’s here that we found the Prince Rodgers Slave cemetery. It’s wedged between two suburban homes on Foothill Road.
“Prince Rodgers was an amazing human being who was born here in 1815,” said Lorayn Allen. “His parents were literally kidnapped by the Dutch and brought here for free labor.”
Allen formed a foundation to preserve the Bridgewater burial site. Raising money to preserve this slave cemetery is only part of that battle. The other is convincing her own grandchildren that slavery existed in New Jersey.
“They call me Mimi,” said Allen. They say ‘Mimi, for God’s sake, we live in Somerville, New Jersey.’ I say, do you realize they still have Ku Klux Klan ramblings in certain areas over here? Everything that happened in the South happened here in the North. Make no mistake about it.”
Historians say eleven thousand enslaved Africans were in New Jersey at the time of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. The number grew from there.
“Um, but we're looking about 12 and a half thousand in the year 1800, and about 80% of, um, Africans and African Americans in New Jersey at that point are in slavery,” said Doctor Jesse Bayker. He teaches at Rutgers University. Specifically, Bayker is with the Scarlet and Black Research Center. It focuses on racism against African Americans. New Jersey residents are often surprised when they hear about slavery in the Garden State. Bayker says one group in particular.
“When I talk to African Americans in New Jersey who are not fully aware of the depth of the history of slavery in this state, they are often upset that they haven't learned it earlier, um, that they have been told, uh, their whole lives, that this was a Southern problem, but that New Jersey wasn't like that, um, it shifts their perspective of their own home state,” stated Bayker. He says slavery in northern states has been talked about in academic circles for almost a century. But, it’s only been studied seriously since the 1990’s.
“Now it's the question of, um, making sure that that trickle goes down to things like high school textbooks, um, and to, to students at an earlier age before they get to college,” said Bayker.
Back in the town of Bridgewater, it doesn’t take long to find someone who’s surprised about slavery in New Jersey.
Christopher Montefusco lives on Foothill Road.
“Yeah, it’s crazy, to think New Jersey this far away. I was totally shocked, totally blown away,” he said.
Montefusco wasn’t surprised I was here to talk about the Prince Rodgers Slave Cemetery. It’s in his side yard. The tombstones are within view of the goalie net Montefusco’s son uses for soccer practice.
“You couldn’t see any of the headstones, you couldn’t see anything. So, I thought it was the neighbor’s property,” he said.
Loryan Allen show us Prince Rodger’s tombstone. It’s is the largest in the cemetery. The names and dates are worn away and harder to read. Both that marker and the other smaller ones have parts broken off. Allen thinks it was local teenagers…
“I guess they were drinking,” Allen speculated. “So, they decided they were going to take the stones, and they literally lifted them up out of the ground and threw them all over the cemetery. They broke them in half.”
The upper left hand corner of Prince Rodgers’ grave marker is chipped off. Allen says it wasn’t for a lack of trying.
“They weren’t able to get it out of the ground, but they were able to break it. They had to make an effort to break that stone,” she said.
Prince Rodgers’ slavery ended in 1839. A New Jersey law freed captive women at the age of twenty one and black men at twenty five. The cemetery that bears Rodger’s name was officially dedicated last year. But Allen says, by that time, the name of the former slave was all over town.
“There’s a ten acre complex right around the corner on Prince Rodgers Avenue that’s named in his honor, and there’s a shopping center, Prince Rodgers Shopping Center, and Prince Rodgers Avenue goes all the way to Bridgewater Commons,” said Allen.
But, Allen wants Rodger’s stories to live on as well. He supposedly fought in the U.S. Civil War as a free man, and his descendants live in Bridgewater to this day. All of the families we’ve met in this series have cemeteries and memories they’re working to preserve. But that chance may be slipping away due to the passage of time. There’s also the issue of people, both white and black, who don’t want to talk about racial issues including slavery.
A gentle rain was falling during our visit to the Old Prewett Slave Cemetery in Northport, near Tuscaloosa. We began our series on preserving slave burial sites here. This two acre cemetery was set aside by plantation owner John Welch Prewett in the 1820’s.
“Obviously, there are very distinct rows,” said Len Strozier. He runs Omega Mapping Services in Fortson, Georgia. APR news invited him to use ground penetrating radar to do an underground scan of Old Prewett. Strozier found forty unmarked burials within a half hour. He says he also noticed how they were buried.
“Someone was managing this cemetery,” he observed. “And bodies weren’t thrown out there like grass seed. They were meticulously, and the depths are pretty similar, too.”
“The only reason any of us are here today, is because somebody came before us, and they really came before us,” said Patricia Kemp, who we met earlier in our program. She believes some of her ancestors are laid to rest at Old Prewett.
“I want to where I came from. I want to know about slavery. I want to what they went through, because they went through a lot for me to be here,” said Kemp.
And answers like those may take more than ground penetrating radar.
“There’s not going to be any body left in here. The body’s decomposed,” said Strozier. The hair, teeth, bone, is pretty much gone,” said Len Strozier. He says his equipment can confirm that someone is buried at Old Prewett. But, it won’t reveal who that person is. Strozier says that would take clues uncovered by something closer to archeology.
“It could be the sole of a shoe, it could be the handle off the side of a casket, it could be a button off a shirt,” he speculated.
And that kind of work will likely take time and money. Congress has been working for three years to pass the African American Burial Ground Conservation Act. If the measure becomes law, it’s supposed to provide grants for preservation. But there may be things that dollars can’t buy. Getting people to talk about slavery, for one.
“You know, our students often come into the classroom in college, uh, having not been exposed to the history of slavery in the north and especially the history of slavery in New Jersey,” said Doctor Jesse Bayker at Rutgers University. We spoke with him as APR visited the Prince Rodgers Slave cemetery in Bridgewater, New Jersey. Bayker says many of his students hear for the first time how eleven thousand slaves were held in the Garden State around the year 1800.
“It's a surprise to many of them that slavery was, uh, an important part of new Jersey's early development of new Jersey's economy,” Bayker stated.
Not only did New Jersey enslave Africans, but it was the last northern state to free them following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The subject of slavery became more than a topic of classroom discussion at Rutgers back in 2016.
A report released for Rutgers’ two hundred and fiftieth anniversary focused on the school’s own ties to slavery. An enslaved worker helped build the campus. Rutgers’ first President owned slaves. His family once held famed abolitionist Sojourner Truth. Jesse Bayker says the university is confronting its role in slavery, but not everyone in New Jersey is
“The people who are uncomfortable with looking at that history or acknowledging it. I think they have their own journey, and their own road that they need go on to deal with the fact that we’re going to keep on talking about this,” said Bayker. “We’re going to keep acknowledging this history. No, we’re not to sweep it away under the rug.”
And the hesitancy to talk about slavery may be complicating efforts to preserve slave burial sites both in New Jersey and here in Alabama. You might recall our visit to the Alabama Cemetery Preservation Alliance and its twentieth anniversary workshop north of Huntsville.
“You can find the first name of enslaved people, the slaveholders,” said Ollye Ballard. We met her earlier in our series. The retired magnet school principal is working to find the burial site of her great great grandfather in Huntsville. She says records that identify slaves only with numbers or first names make it tough.
“If it was you, it would just ‘Pat’ and maybe age thirty seven. But, that’s all the information you will have on them,” Ballard stated.
Her great great grandfather was enslaved in 1842. She says one thing she’s tried is to talk with the families of former plantation owners for clues to his final burial site. But, getting the descendants of slaveholders to open up to families of the enslaved hasn’t been easy.
“Many times when we make a presentation, we hear things like ‘I had nothing to do with that, that was long before,” Ballard recalled.
“They're not gonna say nothing, they just go, that's where we buried him,” added Ethel Alexander. We met her earlier in our program as well. Alexander is the past President of the Birmingham African American Genealogy Group. It’s the largest organization in the state that helps black Alabamians trace their roots. Alexander is researching her own family tree, so she says she knows the roadblocks and the frustrations.
“You know, we there's a lot of things we take that we don't like to take, but we take it anyway,” she said. “Because we just don't have the strength to fight it. You know, but yeah, it's frustrating. And it's sad, and it's hurtful.”
But, Alexander says that frustration involves more than just white people who don’t want to open up. She uses her own family as an example.
“Yes, we talk among ourselves,” Alexander confided. “We do. And the way I'm talking to you may be a little different than the way I might talk with my dad, you know. And, he did not talk a lot. And,I was thinking about that. I think about that often because they never talked about growing up too much, and what was going on and all of that. That was always kind of not talked about."
It’s other people who may not to talk that has Alexander concerned. She says her family tree has a possible branch in Florida. Alexander doesn’t know what kind of reception she’ll get when she goes looking for access to those burial sites…
“What can I do? You know what I’m saying? Very rich people own it. It owned by this big company. What are they going to say? Would they going to help me get to it? Because I know it’s there. I scared they’re going to say…sorry.”
Voters in Alabama head to the polls next week for the November midterms. One issue on the ballot is whether to remove slavery from the State Constitution, 157 years after Congress banned the practice nationally with the 13th amendment. And all that uncertainty may be just one issue as Alexander, and others, work to make sure there’s No Stone Unturned.