Digging Up Dead White PeoplePosted March 4th, 2011 by Thomas Norman DeWolf
Tom and I will be hitting the road in May. We will drive more than five thousand miles, visiting ancestral locations in 15 states. Our tour will no doubt include plenty of sojourns in cemeteries.
My uncle says I like digging up dead white people.
It’s not that I “like” doing this, it is just that it is essential to my efforts to uncover my family history. As a genealogist, there is nothing more satisfying than putting flesh on the bones of the arduous computer research I spend much of my time doing. After finding the documents that prove life events in hard numbers, the capstone is locating where the bodies are buried and visiting them to pay my respects. This becomes even more significant for people like mine who weren’t even counted in human census records until 1870.
I found the man who owned my great grandparents buried in the historic Greenwood Cemetery in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Dr. John Marrast is interred in a well maintained plot in the company of his extended family. A very fine tombstone marks his final resting place.
Some of the people he enslaved rest less grandly in a place that doesn’t even look like a cemetery. Using Google maps, I discovered it in an obscure location in Lowndes County, Alabama. The people who currently own the land didn’t even know it was there until I told them. There is no road on the property, not even a path. The singular intact gravestone commemorates Alice Days “asleep in Jesus.” Her 1922 death certificate confirms that she is buried on the “Marash Place.”
Another of the more than one hundred fifty people Dr. Marrast enslaved — my great grandfather Tom Leslie — is buried in an historic location as well. He rests in Oakwood cemetery in Montgomery, Alabama in Scott’s Free Burying Ground in a section reserved for paupers. Had he died during slavery, his body would likely have been tossed in the ground with little ceremony so that everybody could get back to work picking cotton. It is for that reason that I will likely never find his mother, Harriet Morass, who died before Emancipation. Maybe she’s lying somewhere near Alice.
The man I think was his father — blacksmith James Leslie, who lived within buggy distance of the Marrast plantation — lies in a fine family plot in New Bethel Cemetery in Lowndes County. He too is buried near loved ones. His massive gravestone is overturned so I couldn’t read it on my last visit. I am planning to take Tom there when we go South in May so he can help me dig it out to see the epitaph. (Based on admonitions about traveling to this rural enclave alone, it is surely judicious to have a white man by my side lest I be accused of desecration.)
The point I am making here is that, even in death, there is a dichotomy in the burial places of our beloved that has much to do with race and its by-product economics. White people graves are easy to find. Black people graves not so.
I do not plan to be buried. I want my earthly shell decimated quickly by cremation so that the spirit inside me is freed to soar. If reincarnation is real, I shall hope to return to a better world.
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