"No Stone Unturned--" Part Five, What people don't want to talk about.
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.
A gentle rain was falling during our visit to the Old Prewitt 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 Prewitt 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 Prewitt. 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 series. She believes some of her ancestors may be laid to rest at Old Prewitt.
“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 Prewitt. 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 series 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.