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Slave Burial Ground, University of Alabama

The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, stands on a former cemetery, once a burial ground for students and enslaved people. Distinct separation existed between white and enslaved burials. Today, markers honor two enslaved individuals, Jack Rudolph and William Boysey Brown, sparking a path towards reconciliation. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Dr. Harris] We're sitting in the former biology building at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. This building sits on the grounds of what once was a very large cemetery. - [Dr. Green] And this was originally the university burial grounds, and it was created out of necessity. It was the necessity of a death of a student. His name was William Crawford, and then it became a necessity for some of the enslaved people who died here. - [Dr. Harris] But the white people were buried separately from the enslaved people who were here. - [Dr. Green] There is a clear, distinct color line here in which the widow of a faculty member, the white students who die here, they are separate in more cared for grave yard area where the enslaved people buried here were now underneath a parking lot in a parking garage in unmarked graves. - [Dr. Harris] So today what remains are markers and a fenced in area. - [Dr. Green] What survives is the family plot of a former faculty member. But now it's not known as the family plot of this white faculty member. It is known as the slave burial grounds. - [Dr. Harris] What's especially interesting is the marker that names two enslaved people who worked here on campus and also notes an apology. - [Dr. Green] That's what's interesting because they're noted on the marker, but they're not buried where that enclosed space is. They are buried nearby, but it's their burial that leads to that apology because without Jack Rudolph, without William Boysey Brown, and without the notation of the second president of the university who owned both Jack and William Boysey, the apology would not happen. And that marker would not have happened. - [Dr. Harris] And the two enslaved people each have two names. - [Dr. Green] And those names are interesting because in the records they're Jack, they're William Boysey, but at death is when they get a last name of Rudolph and Brown, and it's not the last names that they might've adopted for themselves, but who formerly owned them before President Manly became their main enslaver. So why at death and why in the apology marker are we putting the names of the enslavers, rather just Jack and William Boysey, those were the names they were known by on campus by other enslaved people. - [Dr. Harris] The marker also notes that they were owned by the university itself. - [Dr. Green] And it's really Manly who's the longest serving president at the university who owned both of those individuals, so that they did not put the person who directly enslaved them on that marker. And they apologize without acknowledging the true history there, but at least acknowledging not only that there was slavery, but the names of the two enslaved people. That becomes a path forward to reconciliation that they started, and that's important. - [Dr. Harris] I know you take students and the public on tours. When students walk around the campus, what's your sense of their experience of the burial ground? - [Dr. Green] Most of them did not know it was here, but then what they like about it is finding the names of the enslaved people, cause that is the only place that they're named. And to have those names instead of rented slaves or just slaves, they liked that. They're upset about Rudolph and Brown, but the fact that Jack and William Boysey is there, the fact that there's an apology and the date to that apology and a recognition that this history occurred, they appreciate that and then they usually try to pick up the weeds and clean it up like you would to a normal cemetery. We need to honor these men, even though they weren't buried in that enclosure, this marker's marking their space, and honor them in the present by this generation that they are no longer nameless. They are known. (jazzy piano music)