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National designation for Greenwood Cemetery

By Kevin Elliott

Birmingham’s Greenwood Cemetery is one of the oldest resting places in the state, but the lives of two men buried there may help earn it a national designation as part of the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

At the Birmingham City Commission meeting on Monday, November 22, Birmingham Museum Director Leslie Pielack said staff and volunteers have recently located several significant points of reference that support that two individuals buried there were connected to the Underground Railroad. She said findings allow the city to nominate the cemetery to the National Park Service for designation to the “National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.”

“It’s relatively rare to have that circumstance because most underground railroads were, by pure nature, secret,” Pielak said. “However, we have significant evidence that we think gives the city an opportunity to apply for designation of those tombs.”

Pielack said George Basil Taylor was a former slave who escaped Kentucky in 1855 and settled in Birmingham. He and his wife, Eliza, were the first African Americans to own property in the city. She said there aren’t currently any markers at the grave, but funds have been raised to erect one.

“The other individual was Elija Fish, who was an abolitionist, which we always knew, but we recently discovered that he was in fact doing fundraising activities and some other very direct support for Underground Railroad activities.”

Fish was an early settler to Birmingham, where he founded Birmingham’s First Presbyterian Church. Pielack said staff found Fish worked to help bring slaves to freedom by working politically and financially behind the scenes, helping to relocate and organize other abolitionists.

Pielack said listing the cemetery under a national historic designation would provide opportunities for preservation and promotion of the city’s history.

Commissioners voted unanimously to approve applying for the designation, with commissioner Pierre Boutros absent.


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