Digital Media Center
Bryant-Denny Stadium, Gate 61
920 Paul Bryant Drive
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487-0370
(800) 654-4262

© 2023 Alabama Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
WAPR is currently off air. Thank you for your patience as engineers are working on the issue.

No Stone Unturned-- Part 4 "...what happened in the South, happened in the North."

Part 4 Lorayn cropped.jpg
Pat Duggins
/

Alabama voters head to the polls for the November midterm election next month. One issue on the ballot would do away with slavery. It’s still allowed in the state constitution. Alabama Public Radio news spent nine months looking into one lingering aspect of the slave trade. APR’s focus is on finding and preserving slave cemeteries in the state. By the time of the Civil War, an estimated four hundred thousand people were held as slaves in Alabama. Some accounts put the number throughout the South at closer to four million. That would appear to make the issue of slave cemetery preservation a southern issue. But, that doesn't appear to be the case. Here’s part four of our series we call “No Stone Unturned.”

“I was able to find my great great grandfather listed, and he was on the Longwood Plantation,” said Olley Ballard. We met her at the twentieth annual workshop of the Alabama Cemetery Preservation Association, just north of Huntsville. She wants to find where her great great grandfather was enslaved in 1842.

Ballard 1.jpeg
Pat Duggins
/

“I would like to walk the ground…touch the soil…and feel the presence of my ancestors. I would love to do that,” she mused.

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.

3B75FAD2-1C0F-4159-895C-5756738EC4B1.jpeg
Pat Duggins
/

“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.

jesse.bayker.jpg
Rutgers University
/
Dr. Jesse Bayker

“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.”

Tombstones 2.jpg
Pat Duggins
/

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. That’s in part five.

Editor's note— There's disagreement on where descendants of Prince Rodgers currently reside. Unofficial databases show they live in cities like Somerville, New Jersey. But, apparently not in Bridgewater, where the former slave is buried.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
Related Content
  • Part 1— "The 40 unmarked graves"Alabama voters head to the polls next month. One ballot item could end slavery in the state. Alabama’s constitution still allows forced labor, one hundred and fifty seven years after the thirteenth amendment abolished the practice. That’s not the only lasting impact of the slave trade in Alabama. APR spoke with the descendants of some of estimated four hundred thousand people enslaved here around the Civil War. Many say they can’t find the burial sites of their ancestors, due to unmarked graves or bad records kept by their white captors. Alabama Public Radio news spent nine months looking into efforts to find and preserve slave cemeteries in the state. Here's part one of our series we call “No Stone Unturned.”
  • Before the Civil War, the state of Alabama was home to an estimated thirty three thousand slave holders. Local historians say one of them was John Welch Prewitt. He set aside two acres that became known as the Old Prewitt Slave Cemetery. The site may hold up to two hundred unmarked graves. Former World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Deontay Wilder lives next door.
  • 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.
  • 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.
News from Alabama Public Radio is a public service in association with the University of Alabama. We depend on your help to keep our programming on the air and online. Please consider supporting the news you rely on with a donation today. Every contribution, no matter the size, propels our vital coverage. Thank you.