FLORENCE — An expedition this week to record historical information led to the discovery of a former slave burial site at Armistead Cemetery, located on an old plantation.
The group involved — made up of volunteers, cemetery committee members and a University of North Alabama student and professor — worked Wednesday, starting at about 8:30 a.m., to decipher worn headstones and probe the ground for possible unmarked graves.
These findings and newly recorded information on existing headstones will serve a variety of purposes for the public, according to George Makowski, history professor at UNA and director of its master’s program in public history.
“It does a lot of different things, and one is for the folks whose cemetery it is,” Makowski said. “It lets them know where people are, how the cemetery has been used in the past, and makes it easier for them to find a relative, especially if someone comes in from out of town.
“A number of the descendants here are now in Detroit, Chicago and other areas — part of the Great Migration — so if they come back to look, this would be a source for them.”
Armistead Cemetery, unlike many of the 400-plus historical cemeteries in Lauderdale County, is still an active cemetery, according to Vice President Jessie Smith of the cemetery committee.
The discovery of the unmarked graves helps those in charge of the cemetery to determine where people can and cannot be buried in the future.
To determine where an unmarked grave might be, the group would first seek any changes in the ground, according to volunteer Laura Campbell. While the excellent maintenance of the cemetery was a welcome change for the group, whose members have often worked in abandoned and overgrown cemeteries, it was a double-edged sword.
“It’s a very complex site (to probe in),” Makowski explained. “In cemeteries that have been used and, say, abandoned 50, 70, 100 years ago — the graves have fallen in, and nobody’s attended to that, so often unmarked graves are very easy to find because they’re very distinctive. Here, this is a maintained cemetery, so the graves have been leveled out. Some of them have been kept mounded up, even, a little bit.”
Once a possible site is found, Campbell said a long metal pole is driven into the ground. The probe will not go far into undisturbed ground, but can penetrate deep once it breaks past the topsoil above an unmarked grave.
Makowski said more technologically advanced methods of finding sites include using magnetometry, electrical resistance or ground-penetrating radar.
“There’s no definitive way (to know without digging), but if it meets the dimensions — if it’s 2-foot wide by 6-foot tall — that’s probably a grave,” said Josh Grigsby, who led the work Wednesday. “We’ll do all the scientific measures to be able to (confirm that). For instance, historical cemeteries — that’s how they locate their unmarked graves.”
The field work constituted a valuable opportunity for Grigsby, a public history master’s student at UNA. He and Makowski recently located about 70 unmarked graves in New Bethel Missionary Baptist Church cemetery in Germantown, Tennessee. Makowski said the church is now committed to putting markers on all of these graves.
“No one will ever know who’s there, but they’ll know that someone is there,” he said.
With 2019 marking the 400th anniversary of what is widely regarded as a starting point for African slaves being brought to America, Grigsby said the local discovery holds extra significance for him.
“It’s cool to be able to work on projects and just be able to document the history,” he said.
In contrast to the discovery of the slave burial site, Makowski said the cemetery also contains headstones of blacks who lived during and after slavery that indicate they achieved a higher social or economic status.
By recording information on these and other headstones, Makowski said historians are able to learn more about the people buried there, as well as find clues that can tell them what the culture was like in that area at their time of death.
In addition to recording information on the headstone, the group took black-and-white documentary photos of each headstone that included a scale and informational placard stating the location and, in this case, a number.
Once the project is complete, the records will be kept at the public library, where they can be accessed in the local history and genealogy room, Makowski said.
The forms documenting the headstones will be assembled into a running document with photos attached. A map will indicate where each grave is located and its directional alignment.
Grigsby said he enjoys this type of work and hopes other people will join in.
“There’s a lot of people who do care about these cemeteries, but a lot of people are getting older and getting up in age, so they’re not able to take care of it like they want to,” he said. “There’s not really people in our generation that are really out doing it, so to be able to come out and contribute to that and just be able to honor people like this … it’s awesome to be able to contribute in that way.”
Anyone who is interested in volunteering may look into opportunities through the Lauderdale County Cemetery Rehabilitation Authority, which participated in the research at Armistead Cemetery.
“I would just encourage anybody that wants to be involved in the community, this is a great way to be able to be involved and be able to communicate and contribute across generations,” Grigsby added.