Mississippi officials now acknowledge the presence of an unmarked African American cemetery located at the future site of a Continental Tire factory in Hinds County.
State lawmakers approved a deal in February to offer $274 million in bonds for Continental to build a plant in Hinds County with the promise from the company of 2,500 jobs.
A cultural-assets report about the site, compiled by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in 2014, mentions a cemetery known as New Salem on the nearly 900-acre tract near Clinton. The report also notes that the headstones are consistent with the 19th century planter-class and that the cemetery also contains unmarked graves, likely of slaves of the white people buried on the grounds.
The New Salem cemetery, where the most recent burial took place in 1957, came into renewed focus in recent weeks when several Jackson-area television stations aired news reports about the relocation of graves to the Bolton cemetery, which raised concerns among descendents of people buried at the New Salem site.
Those reports told only half of the story, however.
Just west of New Salem, on the other side of an old road lies another graveyard where African Americans were buried until at least the 1930s.
The archives department’s cultural resources report doesn’t mention the black cemetery. But two nonagenerians who have lived in the area their entire lives confirmed its existence in a recent interview with Mississippi Today.
Bernice Jamison, 95, remembers making the two-mile walk from Mt. Olive Baptist Church to the cemetery. A horse-drawn wagon carried the casket; the bereaved walked behind, she said.
“That was the first graveyard that I ever known. I used to go there and be scared,” Jamison said in an interview at her home near Bolton.
Ernestine Jones, Jamison’s younger sister, doesn’t remember attending funerals — she was only 4 or 5 at the time — but she also remembers living near the cemetery.
Jones, 91, remembers traveling south from the church, located at what is now Northside Drive. She remembers the road getting muddy after heavy rains; when a bridge collapsed, it was replaced with planks. And she remembers how the cemetery was segregated, with black and white graves located on opposite sides of the road.
“The white ones was on the left side, and we was on the right,” Jones recalled as she sketched a map of the separate white and black grave sites, marking the New Salem cemetery with a “W” for whites and the black cemetery with a “B.”
State Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, represents the area in the Legislature. He first heard about the unmarked black cemetery in February and contacted the Mississippi Development Authority, which is coordinating site-preparation efforts before Continental takes it over later this year.
On June 2, a Mississippi Today reporter accompanied relatives of Jamison and Jones to the site, where a team from Ole Miss’ Center for Archaeological Research was doing excavation work. One of the workers told the visitors that the crew was hired to move graves marked with headstones and to use magnetic surveying technology to locate any unmarked graves. From there, the remains would go Ole Miss to determine the age and sex of the deceased before re-internment in Bolton.
At the time, the crew leader estimated about 90 markers had been discovered and that there could be about 100 graves in all. However, his team had not then been told about the second site, across the road, now overgrown with brush and tall weeds.
Yvonne Horton, a cousin to Jamison and Jones, and a descendant of both African Americans and white buried at New Salem, said she wants to see the same effort put into locating black graves that has been put into discovering as many as 250 unmarked graves at New Salem, 150 more than previously anticipated.
“At least try to look and notify the families what they plan to do,” Horton said.
The Center for Archaeological Research at Ole Miss referred questions about the project to the state. Jeff Rent, a spokesman for the development authority, told Mississippi Today that the agency is following all state and federal regulations in relocating the cemetery.
“From the beginning of the project, the entire area has been viewed and treated as one cemetery regardless of whether burials were marked or unmarked. As provided for under the plan approved by the (U.S. Army) Corps (of Engineers), the Mississippi Development Authority contracted with the University of Mississippi Archaeological Department to ensure each and every individual buried at the abandoned cemetery, including marked and unmarked graves, is cared for in a manner that affords the appropriate dignity and respect,” the agency said in a written statement.
Because there were more graves than expected, it’s going to take longer to dig up the graves that are known about.
According to Rent: “As soon as all burials on the east side of the old road are completely excavated by the archeological team, work will move across the old road bed to the west side. Any burials discovered on the west side of the road will be treated as all other burials are being handled.”
If any graves of her descendants and others are located, Yvonne Horton hopes an ad is placed in a local newspaper or that other potential relatives are informed so that a ceremony can be held when the remains are re-interred in Bolton.