The Shocking Story of Tuscaloosa’s Forgotten Graves
You're trapped in Tuscaloosa traffic on an unusually hot and humid October afternoon. The windows of your car are down; your favorite radio station is blasting on the speakers. The wind is in your hair as you make a quick turn from McFarland Boulevard onto Jack Warner Parkway, so you don't pay attention to the wrought-iron sign along the side of the road.
The sign remains unseen by you and by the thousands of people who drive along the parkway every day, forgotten and forlorn on top of that grassy hill.
Rusted and worn, the sign simply says "The Old Cemetery." It's hard to imagine this solitary sign sits above a lonely bit of land that serves as the final resting place of countless souls.
The cemetery belongs to a place known as the Alabama State Hospital for the Insane then as the Alabama Insane Hospital before being referred to by the name of its first superintendent.
This is the story of the forgotten graves of Bryce Hospital.
Founded in 1861, the hospital provided treatment for mental illness. The hospital treated its patients with dignity and kindness and was known across the nation as a leader in mental health. Bryce patients even wrote and edited their own newspaper, The Meteor.
Things changed as time passed, and the conditions at the hospital deteriorated to the point that patients were so mistreated that the hospital found itself at the center of a landmark class-action lawsuit that lasted over 30 years.
Conditions inside Bryce were like a real-life horror film.
Ira DeMent, a judge who worked on the case, described the conditions at Bryce:
Anybody who was unwanted was put in Bryce. They had a geriatric ward where people like your and my parents and grandparents were just warehoused because their children did not care to take care of them in the outside world, and probate judges would admit them and commit them to Bryce on a phone call….They were not mentally ill. Bryce had become a mere dumping ground for socially undesireables, for severely mentally ill, profoundly mentally ill people, and for geriatrics….
There was one ward with nothing on it but old people. Beds were touching one another and they were simply warehoused. There was a cemetery in the back, but no records. Someone would die—they would merely dump them in an unmarked grave and that was the end of it and no accountability, no supervision, no investigation to determine the cause of the death—nothing.
Patients were neglected in life and in death, too.
These people--all with hopes, dreams, and heartache of their own--died alone. They were buried on the hospital grounds, many in large, unmarked graves--and these graves were moved in the 1970s to allow for road construction.
About 1970 part of the old Bryce Cemetery was moved to make room for River Road. The section of the cemetery nearest the river still remains as it was; the rest of the cemetery was moved nearer to the hospital. When the part of the cemetery was moved, many graves were bull-dozed and pieces of bone as well as casket fragments were found. During the move that created River Road, each grave found was documented.
ALDOT worked with the University of Alabama's Archeological Research Team as recently as 2018 to relocate unmarked graves.
One has to wonder if there are graves of which we still remain unaware.
I could be macabre here and go on and on about the possibility of unknowingly driving over unmarked graves when traveling down Jack Warner Parkway, but I won't.
Instead, I'll ask you to visit the Old Bryce Cemetery if you have the time. Bring a small bouquet, read a poem, or say a prayer for those who were forgotten both in life and in death.