Those buried in Glenwood Cemetery have a history unlike any other in our city. An African American Cemetery founded by the City of Huntsville in 1870, Glenwood Cemetery is Huntsville’s oldest surviving African-American burial ground. Glenwood is the resting place of people born slaves, emancipated, and who lived out the remainder of their days in the separate-but-equal south. Buried here are people of great accomplishment, including doctors, educators, clergymen, political leaders and artisans. Tombstones identify those who fought in America’s war, men who risked their lives in defense of a nation that denied their civil rights.
City of Huntsville Cemetery Director Joy McKee is determined that the people buried in Glenwood Cemetery and their contributions to our community are never forgotten. No burial records for Glenwood were kept until 1950s and there was no historical plot of the cemetery. Working with community volunteers, McKee and her staff coordinated a project that identified, located and cataloged all the graves in Glenwood cemetery, many of which were unmarked. Their efforts led to the listing of Glenwood Cemetery to Alabama’s Register of Historic Cemeteries. McKee anticipates that the city of Huntsville will pursue a nomination of Glenwood Cemetery to the National Register of Historic Places.
Glenwood is the resting place of people born slaves, emancipated, and who lived out the remainder of their days in the separate-but-equal south.
The history of Glenwood Cemetery really begins with Georgia, Huntsville’s first African American cemetery established on two acres of land sold by LeRoy Pope to Huntsville City Commissioners in 1818. The site of the original Georgia cemetery is on land now occupied by the Huntsville Hospital parking garage, near the intersection of Madison Street and St. Clair Avenue. Huntsville leaders decided in 1870 to establish a new African American cemetery on the city’s western boundaries, on ten acres of land between Holmes and Clinton Avenue. As no one kept burial records of those buried in Georgia, it is unknown how many graves were moved from the Georgia cemetery to Glenwood and how many bodies remain in the ground beneath the hospital complex.
The first efforts to those identify and document those buried at Glenwood began in 1993 when Mrs. Ollye Conley took her students from the Academy for Space and Foreign Language to the cemetery on a search for Huntsville’s African American history. Documenting Glenwood Cemetery became a special project of the Academy, as Mrs. Conley, students and parents used information from tombstones to research those buried their and their history. Mrs. Conley and her students received commendations from Presidents Clinton and Bush for their work.
The research compiled by Mrs. Conley and her students led to the listing of Glenwood Cemetery to the Alabama Historic Cemetery Register in July 2015. This project was a collaborative effort with Alabama A&M University graduate students Deirdre Childress and David Stovall, retired AAMU professor Joseph Lee, Mrs. Conley and City of Huntsville cemetery staff. This core group prepared the documentation and submitted the application to the Alabama Historical Commission.
Listing to the Alabama Register opened the door for a city-funded project that pulled in archaeologists, anthropologists, preservationists and community volunteers who created a plot map and reconstructed an inventory of all those buried at Glenwood Cemetery. This survey and map show who is buried where, and it also identifies unmarked graves.
One goal of compiling this information is to make it available to individuals searching for their family histories. All the names and information on tombstones will be placed in a public database where it can be available for public use. This would help those doing genealogical work and also help those interested in slavery or researching Huntsville’s African American community. The grave database gives researchers a tangible way to connect to this history.
The next potential milestone in Glenwood’s future is listing to the National Register of Historic Places. This designation would give Glenwood Cemetery and those buried there the recognition they deserve. The Historic Huntsville Foundation has pledged our support for this endeavor.
Building community support for Glenwood Cemetery is a priority of the City of Huntsville. Joy McKee believes that as more people come to learn about Glenwood Cemetery and its place in our city’s history, they will consider supporting efforts to repair headstones and other cemetery beautification projects. In fact, one reason the Cemetery Conservation Workshop was held at Glenwood Cemetery was so volunteers could work with trained professionals to repair broken tombstones.
There is a solemnity to Glenwood Cemetery, a peaceful dignity that uplifts the spirit and touches the soul. The people buried here came from all walks of life; they were mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, husbands and wives. People rejoiced when they were born and grieved when they died. By preserving Glenwood Cemetery, we pay our respects to those buried here and their history.
Adopt a Grave
You can help with restoration efforts at Glenwood Cemetery through a tax-deductible donation to the City of Huntsville, Cemetery Department through Operation Green Team. A qualified professional should only do monument repair. The cost to repair and rest one broken tombstone is approximately $350. For information on how to help with Huntsville City Cemeteries, call Joy McKee at (256) 427-5048 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Leave it to the Professionals! It seems like it would be a good deed to clear away overgrown vegetation at a cemetery or clean a tombstone so the name of the deceased can be read. But it is not.
Alabama has strict laws protecting cemeteries and gravesites, and their violation can result in Class A misdemeanor or Class C felony charges.
For more information about laws governing cemeteries and gravesites, consult the Alabama Burial Act, which is available on the website of the Alabama Historic Commission, Cemetery Program page. Follow the link, Alabama’s Historic Cemeteries: A Basic Guide to Preservation.
This article “Glenwood Cemetery – Paying Our Respects” first appeared in the April 2017 issue of the Historic Huntsville Foundation newsletter. The author, Donna Castellano, serves as Executive Director of the Historic Huntsville Foundation.