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"No Stone Unturned" Part 3-- They may not see anything but a rock...

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Pat Duggins
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The thirteenth amendment did away with slavery in the United States one hundred and fifty seven years ago. Alabama voters may take similar action next month. The state’s Constitution still allows involuntary servitude. An estimated four hundred thousand slaves were held in Alabama before they were finally freed in 1865. APR spoke with the descendants of some of these people. They talked about trying to find the burial sites of their ancestors, and facing roadblocks 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…

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Pat Duggins
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The check-in table at the 20th annual workshop of the Alabama Cemetery Preservation Alliance

“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. ”

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. “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…

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Pat Duggins
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Ethel Alexander, of the Birmingham African American Genealogy Group

“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.

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Photos of Ethel Alexander's family at her home near Birmingham.

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….

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Rep. Terri Sewell speaks at the unity breakfast Sunday, March 1, 2020, in Selma , Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

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. So until a final vote is held ion Congress, all the descendants of enslaved people, or those freed following the Civil War, 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’s in part 4.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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  • The Alabama Public Radio newsroom spent nine months investigating efforts to preserve slave cemeteries in the state. An estimated four hundred thousand captives were held in Alabama before the Civil War. Historians say many of these newly freed people 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. Today, we present the conclusion of our series titled “No Stone Unturned.” One issue with preserving these cemeteries may be getting people, both black and white, to talk about it.
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