OPELIKA, Ala. (WRBL) – Efforts are underway to protect a primarily African American cemetery in Opelika founded in the early 1900s as a place where families could bury their loved ones when they could not afford a plot.

Around 1910 George Giddens, who may have been a formerly enslaved person, purchased 105 acres of land across from the area we now know as TigerTown in Opelika on Fredrick Road. The land already included several graves, and Giddens continued allowing burials for families who could not afford plots in segregated sections of cemeteries. It was Giddens’ gift to the community he cared for. February of this year, Giddens Cemetery was listed on the Alabama Historical Registry.

Shey Knight tells News 3 his family purchased the property from the Giddens’ family 17 years ago. Knight says in January, they divided the parcel to protect the graves, and shortly after, a purchaser developed a plan to develop the front lot.

“After we purchased the property, we installed posts and flagged the gravesites off to protect them and have worked to preserve and maintain them over the years, including not being open to purchase offers that included removing and/ or damaging them. We even found part of the only missing headstone on adjacent property and returned it to its proper site. “

Dr. Robert Bubb, an Auburn University Lecturer and Coordinator for Research to Preserve African American Stories and Traditions, posted to the group’s social media page this week saying during the week of April 17th, the landowner had the property partially cleared by heavy equipment, including both Burial Sites 1 and 2.

“I am deeply saddened and dismayed to see the surface damage to two African American burial sites on the property. The methods used by the landowner were not proper preservation procedures and techniques, nor were they in accordance with the procedures specified by the Alabama Historical Commission and the Alabama Burial Act laws. “

Knight says he will be meeting with the group next week to discuss the situation, and the graves will be protected.

“In February, we learned about the possibility of additional burials on the eastern property line. Since then, we have completed GPR twice and flagged off sensitive areas. The potential purchaser has created another plan that will serve to preserve and protect any additional burials. We will NOT develop over or destroy any burials, and we are meeting with the leaders of this movement next week,” said Knight.

News 3 is told the Lee County Cemetery Preservation Commission is looking into the situation. A public hearing is set for May 17th at the Opelika City Council meeting regarding the development of the property.

For more information on the group’s concerns regarding the development, please visit Research to Preserve African American Stories and Traditions Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/rPAAST