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The Forgotten Cemetery: Why the founder of Prichard Memorial Cemetery was arrested

(WPMI) Albert carried out his plan without the approval of the city. He started burying people on this land. In the seventies, Prichard police arrested Albert Reese and accused him of burying people where he shouldn't.
(WPMI) Albert carried out his plan without the approval of the city. He started burying people on this land. In the seventies, Prichard police arrested Albert Reese and accused him of burying people where he shouldn't.

In an NBC 15 exclusive Reality Check into a forgotten cemetery, we're taking it back to the beginning.

Families contacted us because they couldn't find the grave sites of their loved ones at Prichard Memorial Cemetery.

Our investigation discovered that only half of the property was ever zoned a cemetery even though hundreds of people are buried all over the grounds.

Our investigation revealed the Prichard Memorial property has changed hands several times leading to today's confusion.

Now we're chasing the cemetery back decades to its roots.

The name Albert Reese once carried weight in Prichard.

Need proof?

A road is named after him on the northeast side of Prichard.

It's the place where Reese made his home. It's where his son Kenneth still lives to this day.

"I wouldn't want to live nowhere else," he said.

Albert Reese was a successful businessman in an era when things weren't easy for an African-American entrepreneur.

He established Reese funeral home in 1974. It's a business which still bears his name, though it's no longer in the family.

Reese had plans. Big plans. He asked the city of Prichard to allow him to start Prichard Memorial Cemetery on a plot of land off Stile Avenue.

"It was for people who really didn't have a whole lot of money to pay for expensive grave spaces. They could always go to Prichard Memorial and afford the grave spaces. That was his dream, really, to help people who didn't have a whole lot of money," said Kenneth.

The city council didn't approve of Reese's plan. The mayor and the council went back and forth with Albert Reese for years over health inspections and all the other requirements to legally establish a cemetery.

Records show Albert fought back.

"It was the dream he had and he wanted to help people. He wasn't going to back down. He was going to let nothing stop him," said Kenneth.

Albert carried out his plan without the approval of the city. He started burying people on this land. In the seventies, Prichard police arrested Albert Reese and accused him of burying people where he shouldn't.

"They didn't want him to open a cemetery in that neighborhood," said Kenneth.

Albert Reese pressed on. He worked with his business partners to realize his vision for Prichard Memorial Cemetery and eventually received zoning approval.

Kenneth Reese, Albert's son, worked for years as a gravedigger there.

"When the cemetery first opened we buried in the back of the cemetery," he said.

Today, hundreds of people are buried at Prichard Memorial.

An NBC 15 investigation discovered only half this land was ever zoned for a cemetery.

"I can never remember digging a grave in the front of the cemetery. It was always in the back. We'd always provide a grave marker," said Kenneth.

Today, those front two sections of the property contain dozens of graves in areas not zoned as a cemetery.

"Parcel 1 and 2...I don't know anything about that," said Kenneth.

The city of Prichard has temporarily stopped all burials at Prichard Memorial Cemetery while it tries to figure out who is responsible for all these graves.

Kenneth: "I just don't want people to think that he was a bad man. He wasn't that type of that man."

Rachael: "He just was trying to get something started?"

Kenneth: "He was trying to get something started to help people."

The legal part of the cemetery doesn't have a clear owner these days. We're still working to find out who's responsible.

We do know section one of Prichard Memorial not zoned for a cemetery was purchased this year by New Birth Community Church in a tax sale. It's former pastor is Cederick McMillian.

Earlier this year, McMillian's church bought property on the same block as Prichard Memorial.

Just like Reese, McMillian too went through the city, thought he had it all worked out, started burying people and wound up facing city citations.

McMillian was convicted in city court just last month and still faces criminal charges for abuse of a corpse.

In the Prichard Memorial situation neither McMillian nor his church is accused of any wrongdoing.