Just north of downtown Mobile stands a cemetery, covered completely by thick grass and forgotten to all but a few. Dr. Michael Robinson, a history professor from the University of Mobile, drove past this dilapidated cemetery every day on his way to work, until he decided something need to be done.
He coordinated with the Dora Franklin Finley African American Heritage Trail and brought the university’s history department the cemetery, to clean it up for Project Serve. Project Serve is the day when University of Mobile cancels classes so students, faculty and staff can come together to give back to the community. The 2017 Project Serve was held on Sept. 23, and more than 1,300 people volunteered at over 80 sites across two counties.
I was in a group of about 20 students and professors gathered at the foot of a historical marker denoting the cemetery as the final resting place of some 100 slaves who were aboard the Clotilde, one of the last slave ships to (illegally) enter the United States. These slaves founded what is now known as Africatown, and about 1,600 graves fill the run-down cemetery. Several board members of the Heritage Trail were able to join us in the heat to tell stories about the past.
As professors and students worked side by side, laughter filled the air. In a place associated with death and the past, history lovers flourish. We were able to clean up a good portion of the cemetery, revealing the graves of those who helped build Mobile. It is sad to see such a great resource fading away, but I know at least 20 people who value it enough to sweat for a few hours to make it livable again.
It may seem a paradox to make a cemetery livable, but it is certainly a living, breathing part of Mobile history. A cemetery like Old Plateau can give us important information about the past that we might never know otherwise. When you see a cemetery, you might see death, but I see a portal into the past and a place where history comes alive.