Thousands of unmarked graves in Mobile to force relocation of city facilities

Published: Feb. 22, 2023 at 6:16 PM CST
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - For decades, the city has been operating a police academy, a fire training complex and other facilities on a graveyard.

The discovery last year of those unmarked graves dating back more than a century has prompted officials to craft plans to relocate at least five city-owned facilities. Or more accurately, it was the rediscovery of that fact. There are indications previous city officials knew about the site for a very long time.

“We started delving into the records and that’s when we found out that there was a deed transferring that property to the city that goes back all the way to 1877,” Mayor Sandy Stimpson said Wednesday. “And there were certain restrictions in that deed.”

Stimpson said the city halted construction on a planned expansion of fire training facility on Owens Street when workers uncovered human remains in January last year.

“We realize that, just in good conscience, we didn’t think we could continue – certainly, couldn’t build a new building knowing what we knew,” he said.

The deed conveyed by an organization called the Congregation of the Gates of Heaven and the Society of the Friends of the Needy stipulated that the 50-acre property south of Virginia Street between South Ann and Owens streets be preserved as a burial ground. City officials said they also are researching an 1895 ordinance that appears to restrict the use of the property.

The city evidently was not aware of those restrictions, or simply ignored them, when it started constructing buildings there in the 1960s. It now is the location of the fire training facility, the police academy, the animal shelter, the Mobile police Mounted Unit facility and a facilities maintenance building.

Stimpson said all of those operations will be relocated over the next few years. He added that the city is still researching to see if the city’s impound yard will be affected.

The issue came to the city’s attention again in 1999 when it hired an engineering firm to complete a ground-penetrating radar analysis of the area that spotted 3,426 locations indicative of buried bodies. That is on top of 263 graves found the year before, according to the report. City officials on Wednesday said there could be more beneath the existing buildings.

Stimpson said officials do not know the identities of the people buried on the site. The most likely explanation, he said, is that it was a potter’s field for poor people.

“These are all unmarked graves,” he said. “And if it wasn’t for the ground-penetrating radar, you wouldn’t know it unless you were to dig.”

It is unclear what became of the 1999 report. Stimpson said his administration was not aware of it until officials started looking into it when construction workers who were building a new fire training building stumbled on boxes with human remains in January 2022. City officials first treated it as a possible crime scene but quickly discovered that the remains were old.

Mike Dow, who was mayor in 1999, told FOX10 News that he has a vague recollection of graves but does not recall specific details. He said he asked a few people who served in his administration and that they do not have strong memories, either. He said at the time, the city planned to expand the fire training facility but backed off.

“We just left it alone,” he said.

Stimpson said the current facilities are in different states of relocating. He said the city plans to move the Mounted Unit to city-owned property at the entrance of Magnolia Grove. He said the city currently is in the design phrase for a new animal control facility. He said the city is considering a couple of locations for a combined police and fire training facility. The City Council voted last month to spend $997,207 for the design and construction administration of that facility.

“It could all be in two, 2½ years, depending on the funding,” he said. “I man, these are not inexpensive facilities.”

Long term, Stimpson said, the current buildings will be torn down.

“Let’s get all these facilities out of there and mark this area so there’ll never be anything built there, that it will be memorialized as a historic graveyard,” he said.


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