Every year, I take my creative writing students to Montgomery’s historic Oakwood Cemetery, where they each choose a person whose tombstone stands out to them for some reason, then we go to the Alabama Department of Archives & History for most of two weeks where they do the research to write a short narrative autobiography of the person. The assignment, which asks them to create a literary character with a distinctive voice out of a real person, walks the line between creative nonfiction and historical fiction, as the students sift through census records and microfilm, record books and news articles to piece together a life-long past. 
Each year, when we go – we’ve been doing this for seven or eight years – I’m drawn to one particular grave, near the entrance to the cemetery: an above-ground bricked-in grave with a metal plaque that reads: “Here lies JIM, slave of S. Schuessler, died June 14, 1854, aged 30 years. Remembered for his virtue.” What strikes me about Jim’s grave is its placement. The African-American section of Oakwood Cemetery is much further back and down a hill; Jim was placed amongst white company.
Nearby, across a small road and over about twenty yards, is the grave of a man named Stephen Schuessler , who I presume to be the S. Schuessler from the plaque. The German name is fairly unique among names in Montgomery, Alabama. Unfortunately, there isn’t much to find on either man.
The 1860 census shows Stephen Schuessler in Montgomery, 42 years old, working as a butcher. His birthplace is listed as Germany. His wife, Mary, who was 33, was born in Alabama, and the couple has two children, a three-year-old son and a one-month-old daughter. (Jim had passed away by this point.)
Living next door to them in 1860 were a 23-year-old man named Adam Schuessler and a 21-year-old man also named Stephen Schuessler, whose professions were a butcher and a blacksmith, respectively; the two of them are listed as being from Boden, Germany. They are probably related, though it is unclear as to how.
Ten years earlier, in 1850, the census has them all living together, sans the two young children, who were of course not born yet. There’s the elder Stephen at age 32, and his wife Mary at 23, and Adam and the younger Stephen as boys. Another woman was there with them too: Catherine Schuessler, age 37— considering that he had a wife . . . maybe she was a sister of the elder of Stephen, and mother to the two boys. But no Jim. No slaves or servants listed at all.
The only other record I’ve found on this Stephen Schuessler is a marriage record shows that him and Mary Sagar in August 1845 in Autauga County, Alabama, which is adjacent to Montgomery County. One German marriage record, which I can’t access, involves a man by the same name, but it wouldn’t do any good to dig it up to find more about a slave who died young and was buried among white people in Alabama.
So who was Jim? I’m far more interested in him than in the German-born butcher who held him as property. I’ve seen slave holdings listed in census records before, but in this case, no. In 1850, the younger Stephen was only a child, certainly too young to own a slave, when it is much more likely that his grown namesake was the man described in the plaque. “Remembered for his virtue,” and buried in the white section of the cemetery. Jim must have been, despite his circumstances, one hell of a guy.