Just about a half mile from Highway 31 near Fort Deposit, Alabama is a dirt road that leads to a sacred place. The dirt road forks off onto another dirt road. At the end of this road are three cemeteries. Once upon a time a church stood in the middle of the small clearing. In back of the rickety church building was a cemetery inside a fence. Only white people are buried there. The graves are very old. Just a way up the slight hill overlooking the church was another small cemetery. Only white people are buried there. These graves are even older. The history of this church and cemeteries date back to 1863. The other cemetery is across the dirt road. Only black folks are buried in there.
I grew up attending this little church by the name of Oak Bowery. At that time I did not know the history of the little church and how the Sheppard Family originally gave the land for the church. My family began using the church in the 1920s after it had been vacated by the last congregation. My uncle Early Roper was the pastor. He seemed to preach for hours, but it was probably closer to 45 minutes. I would get very bored. My mind would wander and I would imagine roaming the nearby woods in search of adventure. My cousin Willie “Man” Flowers was the head deacon and he would lead the congregation in hymn singing. The hymns made me sad and it would be many years before I would recognize the beauty of the old spirituals.
Many of my ancestors are buried in the cemetery across the road. Early memories are of Daddy taking my brother and me through the cemetery and pointing out the graves of his parents Isaiah and Emma Roper, several of his adult siblings and other relatives. Others were buried there and Daddy would tell us cemetery stories. He told the sad story about young twin girls who drowned when the wagon they were riding in overturned in a rain-swollen creek. My youthful mind would conjure up images of two white caskets in the church. I also imagined that the forest animals were curious about the loud weeping coming from the small church and at the open graves. One of daddy’s sisters had died, suspiciously at the hands of her husband, some said, but others said that was not so. Daddy tended her grave lovingly, but did not speak of how she died. Sadly the cemetery is overgrown and grave sites have been lost. There is no one local to tend the graves. Oak Bowery Church was rebuilt in the late 1960s out on a paved road. A new cemetery was started there and the old one is badly neglected.
I have continued to visit the old church site and cemetery for almost 50 years. I go back to visit relatives I never met, but I feel their spirit of welcome. In 2010 some family members began to coordinate a comprehensive Roper family reunion. It became clear very early that I was the only one who knew where the bones were buried, so to speak. I was the only one who knew where our relatives lived and were buried. Daddy had told me many stories about his huge family. Our family has had three reunions since 2010. I did a tour of the old Roper home site and the cemetery where so many are buried for each reunion.
Once again this year the family will come together to honor the ancestors and touch their roots. It is always a very meaningful time for these descendants of Isaiah and Emma Roper. I am no longer the only one who knows where the bones are buried.
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