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Pulitzer Prize for Audio-- "No Stone Unturned," Alabama Public Radio

Alabama voters headed to the polls in November for the 2022 midterms. One issue on the ballot was abolishing slavery in the state 157 years after Congress outlawed the practice nationally. Even a “yes” vote in Alabama won’t erase one lasting impact of the slave trade before the U.S. Civil War

“Knowing 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 enclosed Alabama Public Radio’s entry for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Audio, titled “No Stone Unturned: Preserving Slave Cemeteries in Alabama.”

Please click here to listen to the program

Following the passage of the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865, an estimated 435,000 slaves in Alabama were freed. Many of these people remained in the state to live out their lives. Their descendants now say they can’t find the burial sites of their ancestors and these cemeteries are slowly disappearing. Some are lost to neglect while others are being paved over by developers.

Alabama Public Radio spent nine months, with no budget, investigating the effort to find and preserve slave burial grounds in the state. We heard from the families of some of these kidnapped Africans. They say the system that reduced their great-great grandparents to nameless property creates the nearly impossible job of tracing their family roots. That’s a situation not shared by their white neighbors.

We started with forty unmarked graves.

APR began its search at a two acre spot known as the “Old Prewett Slave Cemetery,” set up by plantation owner John Welch Prewett in 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 Prewett with ground penetrating radar.

He found an unmarked grave within a minute, and a total of forty within an half hour.

When someone moves into a new home, neighbors comes by with cakes or pies. Former World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Deontay Wilder heard stories. His new home sits next door to the Old Prewett Slave Cemetery. In Wilder’s first ever interview on the subject, he told APR of his impressions upon visiting the burial yard 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 know 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, one of only two African Americans in the crowd. She was 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 has neither. She’s not even sure where he’s buried.

Ballard is concerned the city of Huntsville built a parking deck on her ancestor's burial site.

APR listeners heard about the obstacles African Americans experience when tracing their ancestry or preserving those graves. Congress may offer help. The U.S. House and Senate are working on a bill called the African American Burial Ground Preservation Act. We spoke with Alabama Democratic Representative Terri Sewell, a co-sponsor of the measure which has languished in committee for three years.

The situation of preserving slave cemeteries isn’t limited to the south.

APR traveled to Bridgewater Township in New Jersey. Efforts are underway to save 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 people 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.
Pat Duggins