The historic Coffee Cemetery is back in the center of a citizens group’s fight to stop construction of a new Walmart.
This time, however, a Coffee family descendant has joined the fight.
Savecoffeecemetery.com went online earlier this week. It includes a three-minute video about the cemetery, Gen. John Coffee and the potential encroachment the new Walmart could pose to the burial site.
“We are concerned about what could happen to the property,” said Dianne O’Neal, whose husband is a descendant of Coffee. “That’s the reason for the website. The larger family has an interest.”
The cemetery and surrounding land were part of Coffee’s plantation. He served as Andrew Jackson’s cavalry commander during the War of 1812 and the Creek War, and was one of the founders of Florence.
The land passed out of the Coffee family in the early 20th century.
At issue is whether the cemetery is rectangular in shape. If it is, then the northern part of it, which is outside the walled portion of the cemetery, would be under the southern part of Walmart’s proposed parking lot. The question the citizens group and the Coffee descendants want answered is whether anyone is buried there.
O’Neal said she is conducting a title search in an attempt to clear up questions about the cemetery’s history and dimensions. She said the walled area is much smaller than the acre described in deeds. She also said the wall was built in 1921 and is not original to the burial ground.
One deed describes Coffee’s monument as the center of the cemetery, and that has created considerable confusion because it is not the center of any measurement that has been made.
George Makowski, a history professor at the University of North Alabama, along with UNA geography professor Greg Gaston, have studied the site and verified the monument is not centered anywhere on the property.
Based on aerial photographs made through the years, the presence of indentations in the ground north of the wall, and the leveled ground that corresponds with the walled area, they believe the cemetery is rectangular in shape.
They want someone to use ground-penetrating radar on the northern site, and have one of the indentations excavated to determine whether burials occurred there.
Makowski, a member of the city’s Cemetery Committee, said Florence’s growth is going to create more instances when commercial development encroaches on old cemeteries tucked in obscure corners of town.
“The city is going to see this again and again with other cemeteries,” he said. “It behooves us to do a good job on this one.”
The website and video were created by Nancy Berry at O’Neal’s request. She is a member of Community Against Urban Sprawl, which is trying to convince the City Council to vote against rezoning the property at its May 15 meetings.
“Obviously, we don’t have the resources like Walmart does,” Berry said. “A video and a website are the only things we have at our disposal to get the word out and try to sway public opinion.”
O’Neal said that, depending on what her research turns up, legal action could be taken to slow or stop the new Walmart.
Robert Palmer can be reached at 256-740-5720 or robert.palmer@TimesDaily.com.