THE DART: Resting place disturbed

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 4, 2007

The Selma Times-Journal

Forty-seven years ago this month, a vandal entered Old Cahawba’s &8220;New&8221; Cemetery and took a sledgehammer to the beautifully carved tombstones of those at rest.

The act was the top story in the June 15, 1960 edition of The Selma Times-Journal. The headline: &8220;Worst Vandalism in History occurs at Old Cahawba.&8221;

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A black and white photo depicts former Selma and Dallas County Center of Commerce Secretary Jack Miles observing the damage; disappointment and unease evident on his face.

What was once Alabama’s state capital from 1820 to 1826, Old Cahawba is now an archeological park and home to three cemeteries. The &8220;New&8221; cemetery, created in 1851, is believed to have replaced the Old Capital Cemetery, located on the outskirts of town, Matthews said.

A &8220;Negro Burial Ground,&8221; located off Oak Street, is the resting place of Old Cahawba’s slaves and their descendants.

In the 1960s, Old Cahawba was a &8220;place of hunting cabins and fishing camps,&8221; Matthews said. Then there were no intentions of turning the once bustling antebellum river town into a park. Shortly after the &8220;New&8221; cemetery vandalism, former Secretary Miles requested the county offer a $500 reward for information leading to the apprehension of the vandal(s). No one came forward.

Miles believed &8220;teenagers or negroes&8221; were not responsible for the vandalism, and said it may have been an inside job.

The sole witness, Orrville farmer S.E. Fisher, was operating a hamburger and drink stand nearby when he reported hearing what sounded like gunshots. When he entered the cemetery to investigate, a car roared out at high speed almost running him down, The Selma Times-Journal reported.

Walter H. Craig of the Alabama State Highway Department penned a letter to former governor John Patterson regarding the incident.

&8220;The people of Dallas County are vitally interested in this project,&8221; Craig wrote. &8220;The viciousness was an insult to the county.&8221;

Since the vandalism, night watchmen secure the grounds, but &8220;there’s little we can do because there’s so much repair,&8221; said Matthews, citing lack of funding.

Today, visitors to Old Cahawba may partake in a self-guided walking tour of the &8220;New&8221; cemetery. A detailed map leads them to 40 graves of the town’s prominent residents amid cherry laurels, magnolias, and crepe myrtles. One of the most popular gravesites, William Curtis’ family plot contains sons-in-law Joseph Babcock and Dr. Ulmer plus the infant daughter of son-in-law Rev. Cotten. When Babcock suffered a stroke, Rev. Cotten and Dr. Ulmer rushed to his side. Ulmer bled him, caused him to vomit, gave him an enema and administered electric shocks. Babcock died shortly after the treatment.

The Gill family also rests here. Dr. T.W. Gill was a wealthy planter and the grandfather of Anna Gayle Fry, author of &8220;Memories of Old Cahawba.&8221; Buried near Dr. Gill are his sister, Elizabeth Gill Taylor, his son, Dr. Rufus F. Gill, his granddaughter, Margaret Lou Rees Jackson and his son-in-law Augustus H. Jackson.

Jackson, a Confederate soldier, was initially buried in Tennessee during the war. When his brother went to retrieve the body, he was alarmed to find that Jackson had been buried alive and died a horrendous death inside his casket. The cracked tombstones of the Gill family rest atop slab stones.

Nearing the end of the walking tour, visitors learn about the Crocheron family of Staten Island, N.Y. The Crocherons built Alabama’s first statehouse and ran a profitable mercantile business in Old Cahawba. In 1848 R.C. Crocheron brought his wife, Ann Marie, from Philadelphia after he built a mansion at the rear of the family business. The columns of the mansion still stand today. After Ann Marie’s death, R.C. moved back to New York permanently.

Many of the &8220;New&8221; cemetery tombstones are the works of Old Cahawba stone carvers John T. Allen and Nathan Roberts; their names often appear in the lower right corner of the tombstone.

Matthews said descendants of those buried in the &8220;New&8221; cemetery have made contributions over the years, and in October 2005 the Alabama Cemetery Preservation Alliance met at Old Cahawba for its annual meeting. During that time the ACPA recorded data and cleaned the cemetery grounds. Currently there isn’t an ACPA representative for Dallas County, Matthews said.

Negro Burial Ground

The Negro Burial Ground is believed to have been created in 1819 as a slave cemetery. Blacks continued to use the graveyard after emancipation, said Matthews, indicating the last known burial was in 1957.

Before 1996, public access was limited to the burial ground, even for descendants. Explorer Scout Post 2011 of the Boy Scouts of America performed an initial survey of the grounds and located many of the monuments in 1993. The following year concerned citizens at a Black Heritage Council meeting in Selma signed a petition protesting the closing of the public road that led to the burial ground.

In March 1996 the Archaeological Conservancy and Cahawba Concern collaborated to purchase surrounding land for the park so access to the burial ground would be assured. Finally in May 1996, Joshua Allen Watters built a bridge and opened a trail into the cemetery for his Eagle Scout project.

Today, numbered markers indicate the graves of Amelia &8220;Mealy&8221; Starke, who was born in Tennessee during slavery and married Shadrack Starke, a Cahawba farmer. The couple bore three daughters. The oldest child, Laura, was born before emancipation.

Cahawba Sheriff Warren B. Andrews’ servant, Albert, rests here. Albert, who died in 1860, was mortgaged by Andrews along with his wife, Jo Ann, and two children, Cornelius and Jordon. Described as a &8220;small yellow man,&8221; Albert had light skin and mixed ancestry. After Albert’s death, Jo Ann gave birth to little girl, Alberta. Jo Ann took the last name of Cochran and became a seamstress after emancipation. Sons Cornelius and Jordon grew up in Cahawba and became schoolteachers.

Tennessee Private First Class Edward &8220;Doodle&8221; Craig also rests here. Born in 1891, Craig was stationed in France during World War I was his family worked at Cahawba’s Kirkview Farms. Craig’s mother, Celie, was the cook and ran the house for the Kirkpatrick family. Craig’s wife, Donie, was in charge of washing and ironing. Donie’s chores were performed in the second story of brick structure located behind the Kirkpatrick house, which burned in 1935. However, the brick structure Donie used still stands today.

The latest criminal act at Old Cahawba occurred at the gravesite of Virginia, the daughter of Margaret Perrine. In 1999, someone stole Virginia’s tombstone. The Old Cahawba staff asks if someone spots Virginia’s tombstone in an antique shop or elsewhere, &8220;please notify the staff and the police.&8221; In Alabama, the removal of a tombstone from any cemetery carries one-year jail sentence and a $2,000 fine, Matthews said.