Saturday, August 6, 2016

Graveyards Destroyed for Mississippi Industrial Project

Governor's secret negotiations lead to relocation of historic white cemetery, possible destruction of adjacent black graves

By Alan Huffman

Aug. 6, 2016

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 Gov. 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 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 in the past 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 gravesites 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 cemetery, which is clearly identifiable by its 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 early 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 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, 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 are that there are 45 to 50 marked graves and 20 to 30 unmarked graves in the New Salem cemetery. Others estimate the number of graves are much higher. The graves are being mapped using ground-penetrating radar and will be exhumed and relocated to the Bolton cemetery, according to Chris Pace, with the Jones Walker firm. 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.

Visitors explore the white New Salem cemetery in early June.

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.

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 in an email that 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 has proposed 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 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 (In early August, the fences were moved to the Bolton cemetery along with the New Salem headstones, where they await their associated human remains). As Harris 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 notified, the fences were removed 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.’”

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Junior Goes to the Fair

Donald Trump Jr. looked a little hot and bothered as a small crowd gathered around him at the Neshoba County Fair, just outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, where he arrived on a sweltering Tuesday as a stand-in for his father, to address what looked like a strongly supportive demographic.

The crowd at the fair, an annual event held since 1889, was uniformly white, and the hundreds of political signs plastered to trees, posts and cabin walls were almost all for Republican candidates. Oldies rock songs about the U.S.A. blared from speakers around the grandstand on the horse racing track where Trump Jr. was scheduled to speak, while a man paraded through the crowd with two oversized flags – one the U.S., the other the Confederate, which begged the question: Historically speaking, which side did he support?

An unknowing outsider plopped down on the racetrack could have been forgiven for thinking the scene was an easy read – that this was an echo chamber in the red dirt hills of a county that became infamous as the setting of the murders of three civil rights workers in the summer of 1964. The fair is widely viewed as a Republican bastion, centering on a temporary town of hundreds of rustic family cabins, the consumption of copious amounts of food and drink, and, during political campaign years, candidate speeches. It’s where Ronald Reagan made his famous appearance after clinching the Republican nomination in 1980, during which he proclaimed his support for “states’ rights,” a euphemism for white political control.

But this being the bizarre 2016 U.S. presidential race, and the venue one of the most deeply conflicted regions of the Deep South, everything was not as it appeared to be. Underlying the cheering crowds when Trump Jr. appeared on the grandstand was plenty of evidence of questionable allegiances and unexpected opposition.

There was Bee McNamara, standing beside a Trump sign stapled to a tree, wearing shorts printed with GOP elephant logos, who said he wasn’t at all interested in Junior’s speech. “I’m a conservative Republican, and I won’t vote for Trump,” McNamara, a Mississippi native who now lives in D.C. and whose family has a cabin on the fairgrounds’ venerable Founders’ Square, said. McNamara also supports replacing the state’s controversial flag, which has the Confederate emblem in its canton corner. Given such conflicts, what would he do in November? “Probably vote Libertarian,” he said. The problem, he said, is, “It’s all about hate, on both sides.”

If a conservative Republican wasn’t buying Junior’s spiel, the responses of other fairgoers illustrated that the overt outpouring of support was actually riddled with fractures. The main allure of Junior’s speech, according to many fairgoers, was for bashing the other side in entertaining ways, which made the fair a colorful local microcosm of the national campaign. There were plenty of staunch Trump supporters on hand, but every effort to raise a chant of “U.S.A.” or “Trump” quickly petered out. At a cabin festooned with numerous large Trump banners, one man looked annoyed when asked about his political leanings, and said, “We’re here to watch the races,” referring to the horses, not the candidates.

At a cabin with a Trump banner and another with an image of Hillary Clinton behind bars and the words “Hillary for Prison 2016,” Robbie Fournet was anything but politically strident. Instead, she offered food or drink – as routinely happens at nearly every cabin, and when asked about the banners, said, “I have a brother who’s a sign maker, who probably has stronger feelings than the rest of us.”

Like many fairgoers, Fournet is an expat who came home for the annual fair ritual -- she and her husband Richard now live in Singapore, and she admitted she enjoyed the unconventional campaign. “It’s nice for people to feel strongly about what they believe,” she said. “I like the lack of apathy. I don’t like the violence. Let’s talk without getting violent.” Then she issued an invitation to come back that night for a meal of her mother’s chicken and dumplings.

The undercurrent of past violence in Neshoba County is impossible to ignore, though the fair is far more mannerly than the comment threads of social media posts, and the county seat, majority-white Philadelphia, now has an African American mayor. As one woman with more liberal political views, who asked not to be identified by name, noted, “There are a lot of good people in Neshoba County, but we all know who the former Klan families are. They’re still out there. Trump has brought back those people from the Sixties whose hatred got pushed down, and went underground.”

Rob Hill said he was shocked earlier in the day when he encountered a group of young people in a truck as he was on his way to shop for groceries. Hill has a “Hillary for America” bumper sticker on his car and said the kids in the truck tailgated him for a while and then pulled up beside him and flashed a hand-lettered sign that read, “Trump! White Power!” Hill took a photo of the truck on his cell phone which shows the entire back window covered with a decal that read, “Give God the Glory.”

At another cabin facing the racetrack hung a lonely Hillary Clinton sign, small in comparison with the Trump banners.

“It was the biggest one we could find,” said Kelli Nichols, a National Guardsman whose family owns the cabin. Not everyone in the family supports Clinton, she said, but they tolerate her views. Close quarters and long-time family relations and social connections require that, she said, even in the face of a divisive candidate like Trump. Being polite and hospitable are hallmarks of the fair, to the point that some families don’t allow political banners at all and, this year, some have forbidden discussing politics inside the cabins.

“There’s a deeper level of seriousness elsewhere, but here, we just want to chill out, hang out together,” Nichols said. “People don’t want to offend one another.” She said that if, for example, a black man walked up to a cabin that displayed a Confederate flag, he would be invited in for food and drink. It’s partly about manners, she said, “but there’s also a level of hypocrisy. When you leave, their conversation doesn’t change.” Nichols said her 17-year-old daughter is a diehard Clinton supporter and is excited about voting for the first time, but that many of her daughter’s friends support Trump. “They’re just going with a popular movement. And a lot of adults are worse,” she said. As if to support that observation, a boy of perhaps six who was walking through the fair’s carnival rides could later be heard lamenting, “I’m the only one in the cabin who doesn’t have a picture of Trump.”

Some fairgoers felt Trump Jr.’s appearance was inappropriate, in that he isn’t an actual candidate, and said it was foisted upon the fair by Mississippi’s conservative Republican governor. But others welcomed him with open arms. Soon after Trump Jr. made his entrance, three men proclaimed their support, though like many fairgoers, two declined to give their names. One of them was a fair aberration – an African American who wasn’t there to groom or race horses, so it seemed logical to ask if he, too, supported Trump. Unruffled by the obvious typecasting, he said he did. When Lindsey Lang, the only one who gave his name, said, “We need change, we need that wall,” he agreed.

At her family’s cabin on Founder’s Square, Dianne Walton sat in a porch swing under a ceiling fan languidly parsing the humid air and said she had no intention of listening to Junior's talk, which was wedged between a cake walk and an Eagles tribute band.

Walton said she was distressed by the preponderance of Trump signs on the fairgrounds, many of which had been placed by campaign workers. There was even one on the porch of the cabin of the family of football greats Archie, Eli and Peyton Manning, though in their defense, a neighbor pointed out that not everyone in every cabin could be held responsible for the signs out front. In his speech, Trump Jr. boasted of having been received in the Manning cabin, saying, “Now I know what it’s like to be one of you.” Some fairgoers said they had been approached about hosting him and had declined, but mixed support did not stop Trump Jr. from doing some late afternoon fundraising at select cabins.

For Walton, it was hard to write things off to simple political differences. “It breaks my little Christian heart to hear the venom spewing out of the mouths of people who claim their politics are based on faith,” she said. “I’m going to wax on Rodney King: Why can’t we just get along? Seriously, I’m scared to death. I’m scared of what our country would become under Trump. ‘Muslims: Go away!’ ‘Mexicans: Go away!’ I’m not in any of those groups, but what if I am in one of the groups one day?” Fairgoers in the quiet back alley known as Happy Hollow, which is known as a predominately Democratic neighborhood, expressed similar sentiments.

But there was no visible dissent in the crowd that gathered to hear Trump Jr. at the racetrack, where “R-O-C-K in the U.S.A.” and other patriotic songs were blaring so loudly that older fairgoers could be seen bending their ears to hear each other. A young guy in a Trump mask posing for photos appeared at first to be a protester, but his t-shirt read “Hillary Wasn’t Invited” and he carried a Trump sign. When Trump Jr. came onstage, it appeared that someone asked the man with the flags to lower the Confederate one, and he complied – it was, after all, a tantalizingly damning photo opp.

Trump Jr. did not speak long. He noted the size of the crowd, which numbered in the thousands, and said, “I thought the RNC was big!” Then he talked about how he is a hunter (“He kills elephants!” Dianne Walton blurted out when she heard about it), and said the election is all about the Supreme Court and the 2nd Amendment, which drew polite applause and scattered cheers. Later, on the porch of a Happy Hollow cabin, a Clinton supporter noted that a lot of people went to Junior’s speech just for amusement, and that it was impossible to say how many actually support Trump. As for the size of the crowd, he said, “There were more people for Miss Neshoba County.”