“No Stone Unturned: Preservation of Slave Cemeteries in Alabama.” An APR news podcast

The newsroom of Alabama Public Radio spent nine months investigating efforts to preserve the state’s slave cemeteries. An estimated four hundred thousand enslaved people were held in Alabama before the Civil War. Historians say many of these newly freed blacks stayed in the state after emancipation in 1863. APR spoke to some of their descendants and heard about problems locating their ancestral burial sites.

“Knowing that this graveyard exists and it just shrinks away, it just gets washed away. It just gets thrown away. It’s like taking my grandfather, great-grandfather or father or mother and knowing they’re buried there and just throwing them away.” said Patricia Kemp from Tuscaloosa.

Here is Alabama Public Radio’s entry for the Murrow Award for Best Podcast entitled “No Stone Unturned: Preserving Slave Cemeteries in Alabama.”

We started with forty unidentified graves.

Please click here to subscribe to the podcast, which was first published in November 2022.

https://www.apr.org/podcast/no-stone-unturned-preserving-slave-cemeteries-in-alabama

An estimated 435,000 slaves were held in Alabama before the Civil War. After the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, many of these newly liberated left the South. Still others stayed in Alabama to live out their lives. Their descendants say that the cemeteries where these former slaves were buried are slowly disappearing. Some get lost to trees and brush while others are snapped up and paved over by developers.

APR spent nine months without a budget investigating efforts to find and preserve slave burial sites in the state. We have also heard from the families of these kidnapped Africans. Along with the servitude of their ancestors, there was the system of records that made these people nameless property. This leaves the descendants of the enslaved with the almost impossible task of tracing their family roots – a situation not shared by their white neighbors.

APR began its search at a five-acre site known as the Old Prewitt Slave Cemetery, established by plantation owner John Welch Prewitt of Northport, near Tuscaloosa. Only a handful of headstones and faded headstones survive. The news team invited Len Strozier of Omega Mapping Services in Fortson, Georgia to scan Old Prewitt with a ground-penetrating radar to find hidden and unknown graves.

A half-hour preliminary investigation uncovered forty.

A two-hundred-year-old graveyard may sound like a distant subject to most Alabamaans, but not to former heavyweight boxing champion Deontay Wilder. His home in Northport is adjacent to the Old Prewitt Slave Cemetery. In Wilder’s first interview about his connection to the tomb, he told APR about his impressions of visiting the site for the first time.

“To understand and know where you are and what you put your feet on and what happened at certain times of the years that you have nothing to do with.” Wilder said APR.

Our next stop was the Alabama Cemetery Preservation Alliance Twentieth Anniversary Workshop. There we met Olley Ballard, a retired principal at a magnet school in Huntsville. She is looking for clues to the burial site of her great-great-grandfather, who was enslaved in 1842. The workshop focused on topics such as cleaning tombstones and repairing cemetery gates. Ballard’s great-great-grandfather doesn’t seem to have either. This underscores the inherent injustice that African Americans experience in tracing their ancestors or preserving family burial sites.

This situation is not limited to the South. APR traveled to Bridgewater Township, New Jersey, where efforts are underway to preserve the Prince Rodgers Slave Cemetery, located between two suburban homes. African American residents of New Jersey are often upset when they learn, some for the first time, that 11,000 Africans were enslaved in the Garden State at the time the Declaration of Independence was signed.

APR concluded its investigation with an open discussion of the difficulties of dealing with slave cemeteries and the impact of enslavement when people, both white and African American, seem reluctant to openly discuss racial issues, including slavery.

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