Resolution sought in Frederick Road land dispute
BY KENDYL HOLLINGSWORTH
Helen Keller, from Alabama, once said, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.
May is Historic Preservation Month, and with it has come an ongoing fight to preserve and protect the historically designated George and Addie Giddens Cemetery in the 2500 block of Frederick Road.
Collaboration and cooperation have been essential in the ongoing efforts to reach a resolution in a dispute over the development of the seven-acre parcel of land. Everyone involved is now on the verge of reaching this resolution after an on-site meeting to determine new plans for the space.
“Opelika wants to be progressive and grow, and with that growth comes development and properties and these historic spaces,” said Carmilla Tindal, chair of the Lee County Cemetery Preservation Commission. “Ultimately, there must be a marriage and compromise where this growth and progress can take place with the preservation, protection, respect and dignity of our historic spaces in our communities.”
Plans to purchase and develop the property were put on hold when a research team made up of Auburn University professors, a former graduate student and the LCCPC determined that the land was home to three burial sites. .
“There are more than 100 burials there at Site 3, when we initially only had 20 to 40 according to our estimates,” Tindal said. “The more we started clearing the land, the more footprints and field stones we found. Then science kind of came along and vindicated it.
Dr Robert Bubb, a professor at Auburn University and the team’s chief curator, said he began researching the sites about three years ago, but the situation has drawn more attention. attention from the community when Tindal posted about it on Facebook.
“It’s been a whirlwind, but I’m happy about it because it’s something we fight all the time,” she said. “…We’ve been talking for a few years now about, ‘How can we bring attention to the fact that these things are happening in our communities?’ And often, we are the ones who face off against very large development companies in secret.
The land was previously owned by the Giddens family, but an out-of-state descendant sold it several years ago to Shey and Terri Knight. Recent city documents list current landowners as the Knights and Walter and Theresa Lott.
The seven-acre property sits between a single-family home and a business. It is currently zoned as residential land, but following a recent public hearing, the area could soon be rezoned as office retail space if council votes to approve the motion at a future meeting.
George Giddens, African American and the first owner of the property, was born around 1870 shortly after emancipation ended. Later in life, he and his wife, Addie, became owners of about 105 acres of land south of Pepperell Mill, as well as several other homes in Opelika, according to Bubb.
They bought the property where the cemetery is located in 1901.
“Land ownership for African Americans at this time was scarce,” said Bubb, who also founded Research to Preserve African American Stories and Traditions (rPAAST). “Owning so much property was even rarer. The records we have indicate that his and Addie’s parents were likely sharecroppers. It was very difficult to succeed as a sharecropper, as the system generally kept workers in poverty. We don’t know exactly how he got hold of the properties, but it’s clear that he did very well at a fairly young age.
The Giddens family allowed burials on their property for those who could not afford plots in the separate section of Rosemère Cemetery.
“George and Addie Giddens succeeded in a time when society made it difficult for African Americans to advance,” Bubb added. “In response to their success, they turned to and after their community. …I think when we realize the blessings we have received along our life journey, maybe we can also reach out to others and help them on their journey like the Giddens did.
Tindal and Bubb spoke about the importance of knowing and preserving historic sites such as George and Addie Giddens Cemetery.
“These are sacred spaces that deserve some respect, and they deserve dignity,” Tindal said.
“I hope the community at large can recognize them as such,” Bubb said. “… [Those interred] must be remembered and respected even though many lie in unmarked and unknown graves.
Bubb said he was first alerted to the burial sites in 2018 by LCCPC member Edna Ward, who remembered them from his youth. However, it was not until 2019 that he was able to begin research. Seven months later, he contacted Shey Knight and began physical labor with her permission.
Later, Auburn University geoscience graduate student Hayden Malloch joined the team to help with research and develop a thesis on burial sites. According to Tindal, Malloch used ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to locate more than 100 graves. Dr. Megan Buchanan, an archaeologist and associate professor of anthropology at Auburn University, and Auburn assistant professor of geosciences Stephanie Shepherd Prater supervised Malloch’s research.
Of around 150 supposed graves found, the team identified three people buried there as early as the early 1900s, each with a story and legacy of their own. The oldest, Viola Johnson, had a marked headstone — a rarity for African Americans before the 1920s, Bubb said.
As soon as they confirmed the burials, they started looking for descendants.
“Descendants are key,” Bubb said. “We don’t decide how a cemetery is preserved, it’s the members of the descendant community who have to make those decisions.”
One of these descendants, Barbara Bethany, is the granddaughter of George and Addie Giddens. Since then, she has contributed her voice to research and is part of educational outreach about the cemetery. Tindal said she chose his name as well.
In February 2022, Bubb submitted a nomination to the Alabama Historical Commission to have George and Addie Giddens Cemetery placed on the Historic Cemetery Register. He was accepted later that month.
Communication between Bubb and Knight was constant until the end of March 2022, according to Tindal’s Facebook post. The team had made significant progress delineating Sites 1 and 2 and clearing them for the GPR, but after communication broke down, Tindal said a quick shutdown of the property revealed those sites had been “encroached” by heavy machinery. The work removed valuable fieldstones and other indicators of surface-level graves.
“At this point, all trust is lost,” she recalls. They feared the same could happen to Site 3, so Tindal took the matter to social media to raise awareness and “call people to action”.
Bubb, Tindal and Buchanan all noted that a permit is needed to make changes to a historically designated site, including the removal of trees and the repair of headstones. Without a permit, these types of actions violate Alabama burial law. A judicial investigation is underway.
This month, those involved stepped up communication and came together to resolve the issue. They also created and signed an agreement setting out certain terms “to protect and enhance the integrity of the three burial sites, while preserving the dignity and respect for the individual and family legacies associated with the three sites.”
The document was shared with the city council, according to Bubb.
“We met Monday morning (May 9) with members of the LCCPC and several community members,” Knight said. “We had a positive meeting and agreed to work more closely with the goal of demonstrating how people can come together and achieve a common goal.”
Also in attendance were developer Bryan Stone, owner of BC Stone Homes, LLC, and community leaders Billy Allen, Oscar Penn and John Andrew Harris.
Bubb, Tindal, Allen, Penn, Harris and LCCPC member Tiffany Hillyer all spoke in favor of rezoning the land at a public hearing held during the Opelika City Council meeting on May 17 .
Harris recalled the “harmony, peace and understanding” that presided over the May 9 meeting.
“You can still have a good community when you bring people together,” he said. “I didn’t know what to expect, but when I went there and everyone was talking, coming to a consensus, it felt good.”
Stone agreed, adding that he was happy to see people coming together with the common goal of preserving the cemetery. Although the group has agreed on the new development project, he said that the plans will not be finalized until an archaeologist confirms the latest findings from the GPR.
“We basically designed the site around what we found,” Stone explained. “There’s an anomaly that we don’t think we can conceive of that no one thinks is serious, but we need to check it out. And if it turns out to be a grave, we’ll probably stop from my point of view. …I don’t think I’ll buy it.
Ward 2 and President Pro-Tem Councilwoman Erica Baker-Norris said the council was “saddened” when they heard about the dispute, but happy the group was moving toward a resolution.
Knight added that they are also seeking input from descendants on how to preserve the space.
“To move forward with this space, I believe that Shey Knight and Mr. Bryan Stone have the best intentions and that we can work together, and this can serve as a model in our community moving forward,” said said Tindal.
“I hold out hope for redemption here. I don’t think we’ve gotten so far that we can’t come back.