Hidden History: Dilapidated Prewitt slave cemetery sparks conversation, questions
The old Prewitt slave cemetery, located in Tuscaloosa County, was used and cared for over generations. Now this place and its painful legacy is endangered, facing logging crews nearby along with nature’s takeover alongside the passage of time.
During the 1820s, slave owner John Welch Prewitt established the 2-acre burial ground on his 6,000-acre estate.
For years, Prewitt’s great-great-great-granddaughter Eloise Prewitt has been doing what she can to keep the centuries-old location as a place reflective of its purpose: a quiet resting place for those who had little to call their own. More than 600 slaves are buried in the Northport cemetery overlooking Lake Tuscaloosa, and its last resident was buried around 1945.
“(Those buried there) deserve it,” said Eloise Prewitt. “These people in these cemeteries, they’re just gone and forgotten. I know their soul is not there, but they deserve it.”
But Eloise is just one person, and the grounds are vast. Grass and dirt are creeping onto the grave markers, some toppled from weather or wear and covered with leaves or brush.
“When I started the cleanup at the cemetery, I met so many people from Holly Springs, Pole Bridge, all in that area, and we just really connected and became friends,” Eloise said. “I mean good friends.”
What’s in a name?
WVUA 23 News Reporter Jabaree Prewitt and Eloise Prewitt have more in common than a last name. Eloise is the descendant of the cemetery’s original owner, and Jabaree has ancestors buried there.
As Eloise Prewitt tells it, her ancestor John Welch Prewitt fathered a number of children with his slaves. Does that mean Jabaree and Eloise have the same ancestors?
“Willie Prewitt, at the cemetery (during cleanup events) when we used to talk, said we need to do a DNA test,” Eloise said. Willie, who was Black, often helped improve the cemetery, and Eloise said she’s always been grateful for his friendship.
Like Jabaree, Patricia Kemp’s ancestors are also buried at the Prewitt Slave Cemetery. And just across Lake Tuscaloosa from the slave cemetery is Prewitt-Hagler Cemetery, John Welch Prewitt’s final resting place. Patricia wonders if she’s part of the family, too.
“My great-grandfather and my great-grandmother are both buried there,” Patricia said. “And I also have records of their codes, because their codes are put into the records on anyone that’s buried in the cemetery.”
Patricia and Eloise have a close bond, and they’ve been acting like family for years. But are they blood relatives, too?
“If you’re white and you’re a Prewitt, I hate to tell you but you might be related to me,” Patricia said with a laugh.
Cleaning up history
Eloise and Patricia are working toward ensuring the cemetery and its legacy live on for generations to come.
“That cemetery needs to be publicized,” Patricia said. “School kids need to drive over there and say look, that’s a slave cemetery.”
It’s the largest slave cemetery in Alabama, Patricia said, but not only that, it’s the largest slave cemetery in the U.S. That’s why keeping it intact is imperative, and that’s why they’ll continue.