Mississippi governor’s secret business deal threatens lost African American graves
Aug. 5, 2016
By Alan Huffman
BOLTON, Miss. — No one asked Ernestine Jones, or her sister, Bernice Jamison. The elderly African American sisters weren’t privy to confidential talks between Mississippi officials and a German tire manufacturer over the sale of public land near their home for a $1.45 billion industrial site.
Because of that, the developers were unaware of a key detail well known to the sisters. As Jamison, 94, recalled while sitting with family members in her small home about a half-mile from the site: “We used to bury there.”
“There” is an otherwise vacant, nearly 1,000-acre parcel where Continental Tire the Americas plans to build one of the state’s largest industrial facilities. Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant announced the project in February, touting it as an economic boon to the financially stressed county that includes the state capital. But in their zeal to land the project without interference, state officials and private contractors avoided speaking with local residents and so failed to discover that an unmarked black cemetery stood in the way.
In a state with a notorious racial history, whose governor made headlines earlier this year for supporting and signing an anti-gay “religious freedom” law and who chose black history month to proclaim a new “Confederate heritage month,” the story of the cemetery offers a small but telling window into the widening chasm between conservative politicians and minority groups, many of which have historically had a limited voice.
“Those are our people buried there. People remember them,” said Alfenette Robinson, a relative of Jones and Jamison who visited the graves site unannounced in early June while a crew from the University of Mississippi’s Center for Archaeological Research mapped and worked on a test excavation in a nearby white cemetery. Robinson, who has compiled extensive records of the area’s often-overlooked African American history, was surprised to find that her family’s graves were still in limbo. “Why does no one seem to care?” she asked.
Yvonne Horton, left, and Alfenette Robinson point in the direction of the unmarked black cemetery. Both women have relatives buried there.
The burial grounds became publicly known in February, prompting state officials to say they would take steps to ensure the graves were located and moved. But in early June, survey crews with small earthmoving equipment began marking and excavating graves in the nearby white cemetery, known as New Salem, but not in the unmarked black burial ground nearby. Asked about plans for the unmarked black graves, which had not been located or flagged, the crew leader said he knew nothing about them.
Such cemeteries, unmarked because the survivors typically did not have money for permanent markers, have been bulldozed elsewhere in Mississippi and across the South – in one case, in the state’s Turkey Creek community, despite considerable public outrage. And there are few laws to prevent that from happening.
Michael Trinkley, director of the state of South Carolina’s nonprofit Chicora Foundation, told CNN in an episode of its “Black in America” documentary series, “The problem with preserving these types of sites is that African-American cemeteries are hard to find. You can think of the people buried there as the invisible dead. And not knowing where they are, or how many there are, makes them susceptible to loss.”
Even when grave sites are recognized, Trinkley said, they are sometimes destroyed for development. “What if in that grave was your mother or your child?” he asked. “It’s an issue of respect and an issue of dignity. It’s the last decision society and the individual make together.” There is no official data on the number of unmarked cemeteries that have been desecrated or destroyed for development projects, sometimes even after supporters made their presence known.
Cemeteries occupy an odd niche in American society: in one sense, sanctified, yet sometimes treated as dispensable, especially when valuable real estate is involved. The contrast is often at its starkest among abandoned, historic African American cemeteries in the South. For some, the seeming lack of concern for the African American graves on the Continental site is indicative of Mississippi’s troubled racial history. Such cemeteries, like the people buried in them, were historically given short shrift by the powers that be, and history, in the American South, was meanwhile largely written by whites.
The unmarked cemetery fell through the cracks decades ago, when burials ceased and the narrow, historic road that the sisters say divided it from the white New Salem cemetery was closed. The cemetery’s physical endangerment came about as a result of secret negotiations and secret research combined with what was, essentially, a secret history – one that historically has largely been ignored. The environmental assessment of the Continental site, done for the state by private contractors, was withheld from public view, but a leaked copy reveals plans to relocate the white cemetery but makes no mention of the unmarked black burial ground.
New Salem also includes a few unmarked graves and at least one grave of an African American, but over the years it has been treated differently than the black burial ground. Many of the New Salem obelisks have been damaged by falling limbs and trees, but when the Clinton School District, which owns the property, sold the timber several years ago, loggers avoided the white graves, which were clearly identifiable by their elaborate tombstones and filigreed cast-iron fences, while the area where the sisters say the unmarked black cemetery lies was clear-cut and is now a thicket of briars and vines.
Until recently, both cemeteries were accessible only by a mile-long walk through rough terrain. On the day Robinson and others visited, a gate across the logging road that skirts the site was open, enabling them to drive in. “We wouldn’t have known they weren’t doing anything if we hadn’t come out here,” Robinson said. The road has since been closed with a padlocked chain.
Negotiations for the Continental project began as early as 2014, though few people know the precise date because everyone involved was sworn to secrecy. Rumors had circulated for years that a big project was in the works for the property, on what is known as 16th section land that is set aside for education funding, and the consensus was that it was essentially unstoppable because the governor was pushing it so hard. Even the local newspaper, The Clarion-Ledger, took the unusual step of agreeing not to publish anything due to concern that doing so might derail the project. Huge sums of money, a projected 2,500 jobs and powerful political agendas were at stake. Bryant officially announced the project on Feb. 4, 2016, only after the Associated Press broke the story. By then it was said to be a done deal.
How the unmarked graves came to light is a cautionary tale about public accountability, historical priorities and the lack of protection for abandoned cemeteries. But the key issue was secrecy. The state’s cultural resources impact report, which was used to gain the necessary federal site permit for the project, was deemed exempt from the state’s open records law. Likewise, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issued the permit, declined to provide details from the report beyond noting that there was no mention of an unmarked black cemetery.
State Sen. John Horhn, the African American chair of the state senate’s economic development committee, in whose district the Continental site is located, said that before he was contacted for this story he had not heard of either cemetery. Once informed, he called Manning McPhillips, chief administrative officer of the Mississippi Development Authority, the lead state agency involved in the project, to ask if he knew about the graves.
McPhillips said he did but that he was not authorized to respond to media questions and would arrange a follow-up call. McPhillips told Horhn the Development Authority was coordinating plans for the cemeteries and other relevant historical sites with the state Department of Archives and History, yet when Hohrn subsequently phoned archives director Katie Blount she said she was not familiar with the burial grounds and referred questions to the agency’s director of historic preservation, Jim Woodrick. At the time, Woodrick said that given the revelation about the unmarked black cemetery, the state would have to revisit its project site assessment, though he added that there are few protections for cemeteries and the ultimate responsibility for deciding how to address them would be up to “the applicant.”
In June, Woodrick said he was unaware that work had begun on the relocation of the white graves, though Horhn said an MDA official had told him that the archives agency was in charge of the process. The website of the Corps of Engineers’ Vicksburg District lists the permit applicant as Gov. Bryant and describes the project as a 5.2 million square-foot industrial facility to be built along Interstate 20. Much of the site will be leveled for the project.
The public notice of the state’s permit application, posted on the Vicksburg District’s website, does not indicate whether any comments were received, and an agency official said a Freedom of Information Act request — plus a hefty fee – would be required for that information. Interviews with area residents indicate that few if any knew about it. Vicksburg District spokesman Gregory Raimondo said no public hearings were required or held and that notification went to adjacent landowners and anyone who signed up in advance to receive notices on the website. He said the impact report mentions a few unmarked graves in the New Salem cemetery but that he was unaware of a separate black cemetery. The report was not disclosed because “cultural and historical information is not provided outside of internal review to ensure the integrity of the site materials and locations,” he said.
Graves marked with impermanent wooden markers are among the most vulnerable to desecration, but even cemeteries with elaborate stone markers have been abandoned and forgotten across the South, and many have been pilfered, damaged or destroyed, including a historic cemetery that contained the grave of the founder of the town of Bolton, just west of the Continental site, which was bulldozed for a subdivision in the 1960s (a resident of the neighborhood later retrieved the tombstones and erected them on an empty lot).
In some cases, abandoned or unmarked cemeteries have been ignored even after developers were informed, such as one in the Gulfport, Mississippi, community of Turkey Creek that was paved over. The desecration of the Turkey Creek cemetery was highlighted in the 2013 documentary film Come Hell or High Water, in which resident Eva Skinner points to a parking lot and says that beneath it lies the grave of her son. Developers reportedly left undisturbed only a few of more than 200 African American graves and those were cordoned off by a fence with a padlocked gate.
Woodrick said property owners sometimes resist allowing visits to cemeteries by descendants of those buried in them. “There’s concern about liability – it’s a private property rights issue,” he said. “It’s a legal question whether you have to provide access.” He said the issue of private property rights also limits his agency’s involvement in the cemeteries on the Continental site. However, the proposed project is planned for what is now public land, and the applicant is the state itself, which has agreed to invest huge sums of public money, including millions in tax incentives.
Surprisingly, Woodrick said, “There’s very little in state law that speaks to the protection of cemeteries. The primary responsibility for graves other than those of Native Americans is the county coroner.” A spokesman for the Hinds County coroner said the office would not be involved with any of the graves at the Continental site.
In a follow-up call with representatives of the state development authority, the law firm handling the land transactions and the consultants that commissioned the cultural assessment report, the consensus was that neither cemetery would hinder the Continental project – that those graves that can be located will simply be unearthed and moved. Headwaters Natural Resources Consulting vice president Walt Dinkelacker, who is listed as agent on the state’s permit application with the Corps, said current estimates were that there are 45 to 50 marked graves and 20 to 30 unmarked graves in the New Salem cemetery. Others predict there are many more — perhaps four times that many in the white cemetery alone.
The graves in the marked cemetery were mapped using ground-penetrating radar and will be exhumed and relocated to the Bolton cemetery, according to Chris Pace, with the Jones Walker firm.
Headstones from the white cemetery await their associated human remains at the Bolton cemetery.
The consultants conceded there are likely multiple cemeteries in the area, yet a later visit to the site indicated no survey was underway to locate the unmarked African American burial ground remembered by Jones and Jamison. The precise number of graves in that cemetery is not known. In early August, contractors began relocating the markers for the white cemetery to the Bolton cemetery.
During the last funeral the sisters remember at the unmarked cemetery, the now-abandoned road was still in use, though they recalled that it was in such bad shape the pallbearers had to carry the casket a great distance to prevent the horse-drawn wagon that transported it from getting mired in mud. The last known burial in the white New Salem cemetery was in 1937 but the black cemetery was used well into the 1940s, according to the sisters, who said their younger sister and an uncle are buried there. Another descendant, Yvonne Horton, said she was told that burials continued until 1957.
Descendants of people reportedly buried in the unmarked black cemetery explore the nearby New Salem graves.
The state’s cultural resources report, prepared by Mobile, Alabama-based TerraXplorations for Headwaters and the Department of Archives and History in September 2014, details the white cemetery and notes the presence of a few unmarked graves amidst the marble obelisks that could belong to slaves. The separate black cemetery is not mentioned. Kathryn Blackwell, Continental’s vice president for communications, said she was not aware of the unmarked African American cemetery but that, “Continental was made aware of a cemetery on site and in fact I visited the cemetery myself just a few months ago.” She said that to her knowledge, “Continental has never encountered this before, which is why it is very important to us that this topic is handled with great sensitivity. Continental has asked the state to take great care in handling the cemetery, including involving members of the clergy to ensure this matter is handled with the utmost respect and sensitivity.”
The cultural assessment report contends there are no known records of the church that once stood beside the white cemetery, though other area residents point to documents contained in the archives of nearby Mississippi College that detail activities at the New Salem Baptist Church from the 1830s to the 1850s. Among the notable details is that although the congregation was founded by slave owners, the majority of the members were slaves who provided written permission to join from their owners or plantation overseers. By the time the congregation voted in 1851 to move to Clinton, where they founded that city’s First Baptist Church, there were 82 slave members and 25 white members. Susan Newman, whose family lives about a mile from the site, noted that even in the white cemetery there is a marked grave of a man identified as president of a nearby African American church. Most area cemeteries, including the one in Bolton to which the state is moving the New Salem remains, are racially segregated.
Robinson said one of the graves in the unmarked black cemetery belongs to a deacon and founder of the Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church, which is also African American and stands near the proposed industrial site. She said she would be willing to help document the unmarked cemetery but that for now, recollections of older area residents such as Jamison and Jones are the best sources of information. So far, neither she nor the sisters has been contacted by the state or anyone else involved in the project, she said. Horton, who accompanied Robinson to the cemetery, said that when she phoned the county she was told there was no black cemetery there. “I said I have relatives who know this is here,” she said.
Another former area resident whose ancestors are buried in the white cemetery said the state’s persistent secrecy makes him wary. “The thing that really got my attention is that no one was willing to talk about any of this,” said Connely Farr, whose ancestors are buried at New Salem and who now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. “There’s got to be due process. A lot of public money is involved. It’s being built on public land. The public has to be involved. My concern is that if everything is so secret now, if they didn’t include local people in the site assessment and, as a result, they didn’t know about the other cemetery, and they’re even in bed with the newspaper, what happens if there’s a problem at the plant? Who’s going to be monitoring all of this?”
During the unannounced visit to the cemeteries in early June, the historic fences surrounding white family plots were found scattered along the logging road. When asked about them, Stephen Harris, crew leader for the Center for Archaeological Research, said the keepers of the Bolton cemetery did not want the fences due to the difficulty of mowing around them, though he said it would be up to the state to decide what to do with them. As he spoke, the crew worked on excavating the New Salem grave of a man whose former wooden casket was evident by a rectangular series of rusty marks left by nails about six feet down. Harris said the remains in such graves tend to vary in preservation, from skeletal remains to what is essentially bone meal.
Cast-off cemetery fences lie along a logging road near the New Salem cemetery. After the state Department of Archives and History was informed about the fences, they were moved with the headstones to the Bolton cemetery.
Horhn said that had he known that cemeteries in Mississippi have so few protections he would have introduced a bill during the 2016 legislative session to address that, but the deadline for filing bills had passed by the time he found out. He said it’s important for all of the graves to be sensitively relocated to an accessible site with an explanatory historical marker.
In Horhn’s view, the cemeteries and church records illustrate a complex history worthy of protection and further exploration. In particular, he said, “We have to go back and assess the black cemetery, and tell that story.” He said he was shocked to learn that surveyors were working in the white cemetery but that no effort was being made to locate the black cemetery. Afterward, he said, he contacted the Mississippi Development Authority to express concern over the possibility “that white bodies are being cared for but not with historical integrity and black bodies are being ignored.’”
Update, Aug. 11, 2016:
Horhn said he spoke with Tony Boudreaux, director of the Center for Archaeological Research at Ole Miss, who told him their priority right now is to excavate the graves in the known New Salem cemetery, a process that has taken much longer than they originally expected. Starting out, they estimated there were about 100 marked and unmarked graves, but they’ve revised that number up to about 350, the vast majority of which are unmarked, he said.
According to Horhn, quoting Boudreaux, they have not yet talked with anyone about the possibility of there being additional graves on the opposite side of the old roadbed that runs by New Salem, but they’re open to searching for more if they can get a general description of the location of those graves. Because the area outside the known cemetery is basically an impenetrable bramble, they would have to do site clearing to use their ground-penetrating radar, and to do that they’d need to focus on a specific location.
There are lots of possibilities — that they haven’t found the graves Jones and Jamison mentioned because they’re across the roadbed, that the roadbed has moved over time and they have in fact already found them, etc., but in any event, Horhn said, it doesn’t sound like any site leveling will be done before the question is resolved. Hohrn also said the disinterred remains are being taken to Ole Miss for forensic evaluation to try to determine the individuals’ approximate age, cause of death and ethnicity.
Update, Aug. 22, 2016:
The widespread sharing of this story prompted local media to report on the unmarked black cemetery, prompting the Mississippi Development Authority to issue a statement saying survey crews would locate those graves and treat them the same as those in the New Salem cemetery.