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Cemeteries and the Crimson Tide

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Evergreen Cemetery in Tuscaloosa

Evergreen Cemetery in Tuscaloosa

Next time you watch a University of Alabama home football game, pay particular attention when the Goodyear blimp, which always seems to be there, flies over Bryant-Denny Stadium. When it does, you will notice that hard against the imposing structure named for two of the university’s legends is a cemetery — Evergreen Cemetery, city-owned and maintained.

Years ago, when I was a student at the Capstone, I lived in an apartment across the cemetery from what was then Denny Stadium. I would walk on warm days among the tombstones and mausoleums.

It was a great place to study.

No one ever bothers someone wandering about in a cemetery, especially if they are mumbling out loud to themselves as I did when trying to remember the names and dates and events on which I was sure to be tested in class. One grave had a wrought-iron bench beside it for the bereaved to sit and remember the dear departed. It was a good place to sit and read.

There was talk that year of expanding the stadium, which was said to be a tricky proposition because of the cemetery. I didn’t think much about it at the time. Surely the dead would not stand in the way of the Crimson Tide.

Of course, they didn’t.

The stadium was expanded and the dead remained at rest.

Later, I discovered that if the university had tried, the dead might have prevailed.

I learned this when I was working on a book about the building of the early Alabama Power Co. dams. Those mighty structures brought rivers to a halt and created lakes that flooded communities, churches and graveyards. The graveyards presented what was described as a “ticklish” problem because a grave cannot be moved under Alabama law without the permission of the nearest kin. For established churches with established congregations, this could have been easily solved. The kin could be identified, contacted and permission obtained.

But scattered about what would become the lake bed were smaller churches, some abandoned. Those graveyards often had simple wooden markers or piles of rocks to show where the departed lay. No names. Nothing to identify who was there.

Even when the next of kin could be found, there were problems.

Among rural folks back in the 1920s, there were superstitions about moving a grave that made relatives reluctant to sign the permit. So the power company had to make an extra effort to assure people that their relatives would be reinterred in a dignified manner, in some cases in a new “family plot.” Often, they were buried near others from the same cemetery. That way, yearly events like “decoration day,” when relatives gather to clean the cemetery and put flowers on the graves, could continue to be the reunions they had been in the past.

The power company also hired local undertakers to do the work. They were often the same ones who buried the folks they were digging up. This assured relatives that everything would be done right. When necessary, new markers were purchased and inscribed.

Of course, some graves could not be identified, some relatives could not be found and some kin who were located could care less where great-aunt so-and-so’s remains remained. In those cases, the deceased were left where they were and today they rest peacefully beneath the water.

In comparison, Evergreen would be a simple matter. The graves are well marked, the records are complete. So long as there was not an Auburn fan among the descendants to refuse to grant permission, the matter could be easily handled.

Yes, it would have been expensive, but for Alabama football, expense is never an object to be overcome.

Still, there can always be a hitch.

My late father told the story of a little church in the curve of a dirt road in a rural part of our county. Wanting to straighten and pave the road, the county engineering department contacted the church about relocating the small cemetery situated in the curve. That was when the county learned that the church did not have clear title to the graveyard.

So, who owned it?

Digging back in the records, researchers discovered that the land for the cemetery had been donated by a local farmer, and in the donation he has stipulated that the property was being given to “the dead.”

Yessir.

He gave the land to the people buried there.

How do you get permission from dead folks to disturb their resting place?

You don’t.

They didn’t.

Today, there is a nice, paved road with a curve where you wouldn’t expect it, unless you were from around there.

We used to call them “political curves,” where the road was redirected to pass close to a powerful politician’s house.

I guess you’d call this one a “cemetery curve,” because that’s what it is.

Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and occasional OpEd and Features writer for The Star. Email: hjackson@jsu.edu.