For years Darwin Harris drove past the site of his ancestor’s grave on Scenic U.S. 98 south of Fairhope without knowing it.
A Fairhope resident and business owner, Harris said he didn’t find out until recently that his great-great grandmother, Gertrude Buchanon, is buried in what is known as Tatumville Cemetery, located at 724 S. Mobile St. across the street from the Paddock Estates neighborhood.
When Harris found the headstone, it was covered by an azalea bush. Harris said the discovery opened his eyes to a side of history often forgotten when people talk about Fairhope’s founding.
“All these years I had no idea she was right there the whole time,” Harris said. “There really is history all around us, especially history from the African-American perspective that doesn’t get much light shined upon it. We don’t hear much about our way of life from years ago.”
While the Baldwin County Archives Department has a record of the cemetery, the record does not include a list of names or the number of people buried there. However, documents provided by archives specialist Cyrsten Shiver Demko show eight names found in an online headstone database.
Those names are Harris’ great-great grandmother Gertrude Buchanon, Cecilia Denton, Jas Denton, Estella Kirkman, Robert T. Kirkman, Jerome Nichols, Haywood Stanley and Melinda Denton Williams.
Of the names provided by the archives department, the oldest known birth date is that of Cecila Denton, who was born April 26, 1820, and died Jan. 31, 1906.
Shelia Pompey-Ratliff, who helped to organize a cleanup day at the cemetery earlier this month, said the earliest death she has found in the cemetery dates back to 1871. Pompey-Ratliff said she first stumbled upon the cemetery while perusing Baldwin County’s online geographic mapping website and became intrigued.
After moving away for a few years, she returned to Baldwin County with a renewed interest in the cemetery. She said many headstones have been removed or covered up and there is no clear picture of how many people are actually buried at the cemetery.
“I relocated back recently and this cemetery was heavy on my heart and in my head,” she said. “I was worried because I feared some headstones were removed or covered up.”
She said another historic graveyard is located about one block south on Molokai Road, which she also plans to help restore and protect.
While she said most of the people buried at the Tatumville Cemetery are of Creole and mulatto descent, Pompey-Ratliff believes it is important the issue doesn’t become entangled in racial politics or division because the history is what’s important.
“This is a part of history that I think has not really been widely known before,” Pompey-Ratliff said. “Tatumville, Alabama, existed. I’m always amazed at history, and we have some great history here that needs to be exposed. The younger generation needs to know how hard the previous generations worked to make Fairhope what it is. You can’t just cover these graves with pine straw or something else.”
Clarice Hall-Black’s great-great grandmother, Estella Kirkman, is also buried there. Hall-Black said she became aware of the cemetery at a Houston family reunion, where her grandparents told her about it. The more she investigated, the more impressed she became with its history.
“These are people who were there before Fairhope was even established,” Hall-Black said.
According to Hall-Black, the Tatumville Cemetery was used by people who attended the Twin Beech church, which she said did not have its own graveyard at the time.
Over time, as people lost their land or sold it to incoming developers, the cemetery was almost forgotten.
“We really don’t want this to be a race issue,” Hall-Black said. “But when you hear about all the people who founded Fairhope there’s hardly any mention of the Creole and mulatto people who were here too.
“The Kirkmans, the Houstons, the Dentons and other families are still around and that’s what inspired us,” Hall-Black continued. “We want these people’s families to know where their great-grandparents are buried. We want people to know there was a whole other community here that played a role in making Fairhope the great place it is.”
As part of her restoration effort, Pompey-Ratliff contacted University of South Alabama archaeologist Bonnie Gums, who said she hopes to get involved with preservation efforts there because of the cemetery’s unique history. Gums said there is the possibility numerous unmarked graves are located at the site.
“Remote sensing, such as ground-penetrating radar, may help to identify unmarked graves, and sometimes they are visible as depressions on the ground,” Gums said. “It is a rare and unique opportunity to learn about people from the past, especially if it is a family cemetery.”
Harris said the graveyard’s discovery can help shine a light on a part of Fairhope’s history that is unknown to many of the people who live there.
“It made me appreciate my ancestors and pushed me to try to learn more about how they lived back then,” Harris said. “I want to know more about what it was like to grow up by the bay back then.”
While Harris’ great-great grandmother is buried in Tatumville Cemetery, he does not know where his great-great grandfather’s body is buried.
“It is kind of amazing to me that in this day and age, people don’t have any idea where their relatives are buried,” he said.