Alabama Slave Graves Are a Walmart’s Hidden Hurdle
Dianne O’Neal still lives on the rustic cattle farm that her husband’s family has owned since his great-great-great-grandfather purchased the land in the 1830s. She still stays in a log cabin built from chestnut trees that his ancestors chopped by hand.
Despite some local opposition, city leaders welcomed Walmart, which said it would not disturb burial grounds.
But one aspect of the family’s long history here in northern Alabama is not so well preserved: Coffee Cemetery, an overgrown one-acre graveyard where the ancestors of her husband, Edward O’Neal, and their slaves are buried.
That has become a pressing matter in Florence because Walmart plans to build a store right next to the graveyard. The O’Neals’ biggest concern is that nobody knows exactly where their ancestors’ 80 slaves are buried.
The slaves were owned by Gen. John Coffee, a friend of President Andrew Jackson’s and a surveyor who drew the state’s border with Mississippi. And there is archaeological and historical evidence that suggests his slaves’ graves may be precisely where Walmart plans to pave a driveway to the new store.
Walmart says it will avoid harming any burial grounds, and has pledged $25,000 to restore the crumbling cemetery. But determining the graveyard’s boundaries has proved challenging.
While the white members of the Coffee family lie in graves with limestone markers, historians say, their slaves are most likely buried without headstones. And it was a common Southern tradition to bury house slaves in one place and field slaves in another, or sometimes to let slaves choose a burial site for their own family members.
That has left little evidence. “The only absolutely certain way to know who was there is to dig,” said Ms. O’Neal, 65, a retired art conservator who has led the family’s opposition to the development. “And that’s something we obviously think should be avoided.”