When you go to any cemetery, you hear the sound of weed cutters and lawn mowers carefully cutting grass around graves for maintenance. But at Lincoln Cemetery, it’s a new sound of progress.
“We’re looking at a cemetery that has been neglected for many years that right now we are trying to restore and save it,” says volunteer Phyllis Armstrong, as she carefully navigates through the cemetery. She’s been cleaning up Lincoln for a decade and is familiar with its dark history.
“As you see have a lot of veterans out here, sunken graves, open graves and we try to fill them up.,” says Armstrong. “And especially keep the bones from being exposed. And we’re trying to keep people from going in, digging in the graves.”
Lincoln was established in 1907 as a commercial cemetery for African Americans, with space for 700 graves. So far, volunteers have recorded more than 6,700 graves, some of which lie under nearby roads. With no one in charge of the cemetery or keeping up with burial records, Lincoln was plagued with abuse, vandalism and neglect. The grass had grown over three feet high. People were picking apart old, crumbling graves and taking bones of the deceased.
Phillip Taunton heads up the local group overseeing the cleanup efforts here.
“It’s immoral and it’s unethical for anything like this to be taking place, especially in the city of Montgomery.”
City leaders agreed. In 2010, the city of Montgomery created the Lincoln Cemetery Rehabilitation Authority to restore the neglected cemetery. Now, volunteers like Armstrong come out to the cemetery almost every day to cut the grass, rake leaves and pick up debris and litter. Carla Seawright of Montgomery is visiting the graves of her father and 15-year-old son. She says the cemetery’s come a long way from what it was two years ago.
“You know what a wilderness look like? All tore up and you don’t know nothin’. You just go and put your loved ones there. You don’t back there. Cuz it’s scary,” says Seawright.
Seawright has a specific gravestone in mind. She's looking for the spot where her grandmother is buried.
“She lived to be 105-years-old, my father’s mother. It’s been about four years ago, when she passed.”
Volunteer Phyllis Armstrong says it’s not uncommon to see family members searching for loved ones.
“You know a cemetery’s a history, a grave’s a history,” says Armstrong. “And it tells the story about somebody’s life, where if you have one sunken like that right there, we don’t know who that is. But somebody’s out there saying ‘where they at? That’s my family.’”
And prominent people are no exception. Rufus Payne, also known as “Tee-Tot,” was the mentor of country music legend Hank Williams. He’s buried at Lincoln, but no one is sure where. It's a mystery volunteers like Denise Hardin are trying to solve.
“There’s a picture of Henderson Payne. I want to say it was mid-1990s. He had come out for a dedication ceremony for his dad who was “Tee-Tot” Payne. And it says that he’s sitting at the foot of “Tee-Tot’s” grave.”
Hardin walks to a group of trees in the middle of the cemetery.
“Well in the distance, he’s sitting somewhere here because you can see the grave right here, it stands out. So Tee Tot may in fact be in this area. And somebody may be on top of Tee-Tot.”
“Lincoln is not an exception,” says Lee Anne Wofford. She’s with Alabama’s Historical Commission. “This is really very common all over Alabama. And what happened here can happen anywhere. If any cemetery group goes out of business or they skip town, it doesn’t take long for a cemetery to start looking like this.”
Taunton says the city of Montgomery’s expected to go back to court to settle who the owner of Lincoln Cemetery is this fall. Until then, volunteers like Phyllis Armstrong and Denise Hardin will continue to clean and document graves at Lincoln Cemetery to uncover the secrets that have been kept hidden for over a hundred years.