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Auburn University Students Uncover More Than 50 Potential Unmarked Graves at Historic African-American Cemetery

Published: 07/23/2019

By: Maria Gebhardt

Students enrolled in a summer course entitled “Geographic Field Methods” put on by the Department of Geosciences in the College of Sciences and Mathematics (COSAM) used state-of-the-art technology to help find unmarked graves at Hopewell United Methodist Church in Opelika, Alabama.

Broken tombstone from 1879.

A broken tombstone from 1879 was found in an overgrown area of the cemetery. This piece of stone created an opportunity for students to make a difference to the people who were not appropriately recognized with marked graves.

Led by instructors Dr. Stephanie Rogers and Dr. Stephanie Shepherd, a team of students used Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) and Unpiloted Aerial Vehicle (UAV) technology to locate unmarked graves, update aerial photos, and create a 3D imagery of the church.

Students using GRP.

The entire team worked in collaboration with members of Hopewell United Methodist Church Cemetery Association. Two guest instructors, Dr. Robert Bubb from Auburn University’s College of Human Sciences and Dr. David Holt from the University of Southern Mississippi’s Department of Geography and Geology, provided assistance and guidance during the project.

Students using GPS.

Students found 53 potential unmarked graves and 11 potential unmarked burial sites in the probable cemetery including a possible mass grave through the GPR technology. They created imagery of the church by capturing photos from a UAV. The students also updated information on the findagrave.com website. The information from this project helps the members of the church and the entire community preserve these graves and secure them from being damaged. These historic graves are part of the African-American community and now will continue to be part of history.

Map of unmarked graves.

The students from various departments across campus included:

  • Trevor Cofer (Department of Crop, Soil, and Environmental Sciences)
  • Qiong Zhang (Department of Crop, Soil, and Environmental Sciences)
  • Connor Cain (Department of Geosciences)
  • Elijah Johnson (Department of Geosciences)
  • Dan Schnittka (OLLI – Osher Lifelong Learning Institute)
  • Elliot Steele (Department of Geosciences)
  • Patrick Patterson (Department of Geosciences)
  • Tristan Orndorff (Department of Crop, Soil, and Environmental Sciences)
  • Caitlin Sweeney (Department of Crop, Soil, and Environmental Sciences)
  • Brett Clark (Department of Physics)
  • Ross Ellis (Department of Civil Engineering)
  • Beth Prior (Department of Civil Engineering)
  • Josh Wood (Department of Geosciences)
  • Ying Zhou (Department of Geosciences)
  • El Emran, Teaching Assistant (Department of Geosciences)

 

To learn more about this project, check out this in-depth Story Map that was created by members of the class.

 

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