Alina’s Adventures: local history

The Prewitt Slave Cemetery Comes to Light

In 2006, Carolyn Mason opened the history of the Prewitt plantation and its slaves to the readers of the Tuscaloosa News. Her article described the Old Prewitt Slave Cemetery as “the final resting place of 300 to 500 slaves and their descendents”. Mason explained:

Plantation owner and slave trader John Welch Prewitt, who was said to have owned more than 600 slaves, established the burial ground in the 1820s. Prewitt’s estate once covered more than 6,000 acres north of Northport. His home, which burned down in the 1940s, was a few hundred yards uphill from the cemetery.

Prewitt, who is reported to have owned slave ships that docked in Mobile, designated a two-acre parcel of land next to the road for his slaves to bury their dead. After Emancipation, many of the freed slaves took the last name of their former owners — as was the custom of the time — and settled in the same vicinity.

Possibly the largest existing slave cemetery in Alabama, Prewitt cemetery’s location has remained well known within the black community since its oral history was passed down through the generations.

Although the last burial in the cemetery was in 1945, Prewitts continued to gather there to pay respect to their kin and roam across the sacred ground in search of familiar names among the haphazard gravestones. The markers include hand-cut river rock with crude etchings, solid slabs of arched stone, footstones and flat rocks tented together to keep out animals. The markings range from initials scratched into stone to full names and dates going back to 1819, the year Alabama became a state.

Responsibility for this cemetery was assumed by Pole Bridge Baptist Church, the official landowner of the historic cemetery. But annual clean-ups could not stop the deterioriation of the aged stone markings. At this point, several factors coincided to bring the Prewitt cemetery onto the radar of local historians.

Eloise Prewitt stumbled across a few articles written by Marvin Harper, an early leader of the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society and founder of the Kentuck Arts Festival. In these articles, Harper described early pioneers, including a man named John Welch Prewitt. My feeling is that this very article might have been the one which occasioned Eloise’s search. Recognizing the shared surname, Eloise began an adventure that all local history aficionados can appreciate.

After consulting census records, Eloise confirmed that she was the great-great-great-granddaughter of John Welch Prewitt. Then she found his grave, which was marked with a fading headstone nestled among about two-dozen markers. Mason writes:

The practically unknown cemetery is deep in a heavily wooded and almost inaccessible location on the southern side of the portion of Lake Tuscaloosa that crosses U.S. Highway 43.

In 1998, Prewitt resumed up her quest and found the Prewitt Slave Cemetery. “I felt a strong pull, a sense of family and a determination to do something about the condition it had fallen into,” she said. “I wanted to help.”

What followed was a massive restoration and preservation effort that continues today. The mission brought Prewitt the warmth and acceptance of an extended family, including Floda Prewitt Taylor, known as Miss Flo, and now-deceased Willie Prewitt, black descendents of Prewitt plantation slaves.

“She did more than just help out,” said Taylor, 88, and still active in clean-up duties. “She’s family now. Her efforts have been astonishing, and I think of her like a sister for all she’s done.”

The white and black sides of the Prewitt clan have formed a close connection through their work at the cemetery. But make no mistake: It is backbreaking work against the forces of nature. Volunteers spend hours toiling in the sun’s heat, pulling weeds, cutting vines, digging up stumps and trying to halt nature’s impulse to cover her ground.

The markers at the cemetery have been placed randomly, reflecting times when there was always room for the body of one more family member. They were days when it was common to mark a grave by planting a flower, vine or bush or merely breaking a dinner plate and scattering the pieces.

The cedar trees at the site date to pre-Civil War days and possibly were planted in memory of the deceased, and every rock and stone must be treated with due respect. That this once overgrown cemetery is now easy to access and its appearance is remarkably improved is often credited to Eloise Prewitt.

She says her efforts are nothing more than something families do to help each other. But her actions speak volumes. She set two goals: to help with the physical preservation of the cemetery and to match existing genealogical records with the writings on the grave markers to create a historical account before nature erases the last clues.

“I care that future generations have these records before it’s too late,” Prewitt said.

She has compiled comprehensive, though not-yet completed, notebooks with photographs, slave census records, press clippings and detailed information on every grave she’s documented. She shares her notebooks with volunteer workers and court-assigned clean-up crews.

Eloise Prewitt’s hard work opened the doors to the descendants of the Prewitt plantation to discover and commemorate their own roots. The story of James Wilson’s efforts to gain access to the Prewitt Cemetery gained prominent attention a few years ago. Yet the media accounts of this cemetery offer only a limited and fairly glossified version of the story.

The Less Publicized Stories and Legends Surrounding the Prewitt Plantation and Cemetery

To get a clearer picture of the Prewitt plantation and cemetery, I consulted the Alabama State Archives and stumbled across an essay by Lillian Finnell written in the 1930’s. At one time, Lillian Finnell’s every stumble merited mention in the Tuscaloosa News. Apart from being a collector of local folk tales and histories, Lillian also happened to be a sister of Colonel Woolsey Finnell and “prominent in the work of patriotic organizations” who happened to be raising their trumpets in the Depression-era south.

Her social status offers insight into cultural mores and assumptions predominant during this period by the “educated classes”. As you read Lillian’s entire account of the Prewitt plantation (excerpted below), take note of the subtext which suggests that some slave-owners were “good” or “virtuous” slave-owners:

Mr. John W. Prewitt and his wife lived 13 miles north of Tuscaloosa on the Byler, US 43, Road. They owned approximately one thousand slaves. These slaves lived in different communities in groups necessary for working the farms they lived on. Mr. Prewitt had no hired overseers, but each farm was under one of the slaves that was most dependable.

All these slaves had their own cows, hogs, chickens, etc. which they used and disposed of as they wish. They kept the mules- which were owned by Mr. Prewitt- that they worked and used at their homes. They raised their corn and kept it at home. They went to mill- the mill belonged to Mr. Prewitt- just like white people. On Sunday morning by sun-up these leaders were at the “Big House” (thus was the master’s house always designated by his slaves), to draw meat, flour, lard, coffee, sugar, or any other supplies they needed. The following which was related long years after the war by some of the old ex-slaves is pertinent at this time.

They said that when they used to go to the commissary to draw provisions on Sunday mornings that “Miss Betsy” (Mrs. Prewitt) was always present and that she wouldn’t let “nobody” have a thing unless he, or she, had bathed the night before and had on clean white clothes that morning.

The largest group of slaves lived in quarters back of the “Big House” and worked the big farm. Just south of these quarters was the grave yard for the negroes. When the negroes had colds and other ailments, especially the children, Mrs. Prewitt would get her lantern and such home remedies as she kept, and go from house to house doctoring the sick before she went to bed. This happened oftener during the rainy spring months, because there was more sickness among the darkies then than at any other time.

After the slaves were free and Mr. and Mrs. Prewitt had died, the negro quarters were burned or torn down. But all the old negroes and most of the younger generation believe that every bad rainy night “Miss Betsy” can be seen with her lantern visiting the sick, and not finding them in their cabins, she goes to the graveyard and ministers to them there.

There are some 2000 negroes buried there now. It is the largest negro graveyard in America outside of a large city.

There is another item in connection with the Prewitt negroes which has been handed down by citizens of Tuscaloosa who lived before the war. As the Prewitts had so many slaves- there was only one other gentleman in Tuscaloosa county who probably owned as many slaves as Mr. Prewitt- it was not an easy matter to keep them eployed at all times. So in the fall of the year, during cotton picking time, Mr. Prewitt would hire some of his slaves to planters living below Tuscaloosa in the Black Belt to pick cotton for them. It was said by those older persons, who witnessed such occasions, that it was a show to Tuscaloosans to see the Prewitt negroes passing through the town on their way down to pick cotton on the river plantations.

There would be wagonloads of them, men and women, all so strong and healthy looking, and every one dressed in white.

The paternalism in Lillian’s account is impossible to ignore. Clearly, the Prewitt slaves were to be considered fortunate and lucky to be so finely adorned as they were carried like cattle across town. Even Mr. Harper’s account, written in 1972, describes the kindness of the Prewitt’s in their treatment of slaves.

Paternalistic descriptions of slavery bring to mind the excuses given by harem or brothel owners for treating women and their bodies as property- “But we make them look so pretty and you know they would just be on the streets without us”. I call “canard”. The enslavement of human beings is never justifiable on ethical or moral grounds; and the only heroic slaveowners are those who refused to own slaves.

The Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society includes the Prewitt Slave Cemetery on their list of historic places in Tuscaloosa. The cemetery is located just off Byler Road, the oldest public road in Alabama. To get there, take U.S. Highway 43 to the northwestern edge of Lake Tuscaloosa and turn at the historic marker for Alabama’s first public road. Then follow what’s left of Old Byler Road until it reaches the lake. Once a toll road that crossed land that was swallowed by Lake Tuscaloosa, Old Byler Road connected the Warrior and Tennessee rivers and ran through the Prewitt plantation. If you happen upon the ghost of “Miss Betsy”, let her know she can rest in peace because owning other human beings in now against the law of this land.