Editor’s note: The story has been updated to make clear that no changes to the bond bill were made by Gov. Phil Bryant or his office.
Ann Brown knows where the bodies are buried, so to speak.
In all, she has counted 262 cemeteries in Jefferson County.
“Some are on plantations, some church cemeteries, people buried in the backyard, that kind of thing,” Brown said.
Brown, who describes herself not as an historian but as a 90-year-old woman who looks for cemeteries as a hobby, said she has fielded several calls in recent weeks, including from Mississippi Today, asking what she knows about one particular cemetery in the area.
After writing three books on the subject, she can say with certainty: “There is no Confederate cemetery in Jefferson County.”
It would be strange if there was a Confederate cemetery in the county, where 86 percent of its inhabitants are African Americans, descendants of slaves.
Stranger, though, is the fact that a “Confederate cemetery in Jefferson County” received $100,000 in last year’s bond bill that both houses of the Legislature voted on and Gov. Phil Bryant signed.
Mississippi Today learned of the phantom cemetery and mystery money when the scuttlebutt among preservationists said the Legislature couldn’t get its act together to pass bond bill this year to fund a number of worthwhile projects but managed to secure $100,000 for a Confederate cemetery that doesn’t exist.
More, some questioned that the state would give money to any Confederate cemetery, real or fake, when controversy is still churning over the presence of a Confederate emblem on the state flag and Bryant made his annual issuance of an April Confederate Heritage Month proclamation.
Mississippi Today started connecting the dots in early April after hearing that the Legislature had quietly funded a Confederate cemetery before the session ended in March.
Even though Rep. Deborah Dixon, a Democrat from Raymond, had offered up legislation that contained language for the Confederate cemetery in Jefferson County, her bill’s goal was to remove a requirement that local communities match state funds for certain projects. She couldn’t recall the Confederate cemetery.
It turns out the cemetery money was included in a $308-million bond bill in 2016. The item, on page 68 of the the more 466-page document, was to be dispersed through a state Department of Archives and History grant program.
So who made the request?
Attempts to reach several lawmakers who represent the area were unsuccessful. The county administrator of Jefferson County, where the cemetery money was supposed to go, said he wouldn’t be surprised if there was a Confederate cemetery somewhere in the county but he doesn’t know where it is. He referred Mississippi Today to Ann Brown.
Given that — according to bill tracking information on the Legislature’s website —the wording concerning the Confederate cemetery didn’t appear in any version of the bond bill until it reached Bryant’s desk, questions were raised about how the wording had appeared in the bill.
Bryant has not only proclaimed Confederate Heritage month, he is a dues-paying member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the bond bill.
Michelle Williams, a spokeswoman for Treasurer Lynn Fitch, speaking on behalf of the members of the bond commission — which includes Fitch, Bryant and Attorney General Jim Hood – said because the project was funded through a grant, it would not have been vetted by the commission.
Chris Goodwin, spokesman for the Department of Archives and History, which administers the Community Heritage Preservation Grant program to which the Confederate cemetery money was allocated, spent more than a week trying to track down information about the project but couldn’t nail down an answer.
“We are awaiting direction from the legislature on the intent of that particular passage, and it would probably be quickest for you to reach out to them directly,” Goodwin said in an email.
When Mississippi Today contacted members of the six-member conference committee that negotiated the bond bill, most of those lawmakers couldn’t recall discussing the project either.
A case of ‘discombobulation’
A call to Rep. America “Chuck” Middleton, D-Port Gibson, started to clear things up.
Middleton, who serves on the House Tourism Committee, said he believes that tourism could be a key economic development driver because “people are not kicking down doors to bring industry here.”
He cited the Church Hill community and the Jefferson County Courthouse as potential projects. Thomas Hinds, a military officer who led forces during the War of 1812’s Battle of New Orleans and namesake for Mississippi’s most populous county, is buried in Jefferson County.
There is also a cemetery adjoining the old plantation at Prospect Hill, which in the 1830s and 1840s served as the stage for drama over the recolonization of slaves back to Liberia. If you climb a hill up along the south side of the Rodney Presbyterian Church, you will find a cemetery that likely contains the graves of Civil War soldiers.
“If we’re going to bet all our chips on tourism then we are going to have to promote our historical sites,” Middleton said. “If I can get you off (Highway) 61 and I can get you into town, I can get you to see the community. You can’t have tourism without promoting tourism. You can’t just build it and they will come — you have to let them know it’s there.”
What Middleton didn’t know was how his request for historic sites signage was interpreted and reflected in the bond bill as a Confederate cemetery.
Ultimately, Rep. Jeff Smith, R-Columbus, chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, owned up to the error. Smith said he wanted to include some funds for projects in the district of Middleton, secretary of the House Ways and Means Committee, but that language got “discombobulated” in Smith’s communication with bill drafters. Smith also said that the conference report that appears on the Legislature’s website is an earlier draft than what eventually went to Bryant’s desk.
“He certainly did not not request for a Confederate cemetery. It did get messed in the bill. I’m the chairman so I take the blame,” Smith said.
Now, it will require an act of the Legislature to lift the money out of administrative limbo before it can go towards other projects. Goodwin, spokesman for the Department of Archives and History, said none of the money has been disbursed.
“This happens from time to time,” Smith said. “I suspect there are often mistakes.”
A disheartening situation
Middleton’s plan to focus on tourism was affirmed on a recent day in Rodney, where too few people still live for it to qualify as a town.
Two vehicles were parked outside of the old Rodney Presbyterian Church, a registered national historic landmark on the Mississippi River. A Union battleship fired upon the structure with canon in 1863. The damage to the front of the building remains visible today.
Around noon, a minivan with Illinois license plates creeps past. Its inhabitants, a couple from Peoria, ask about the abandoned cemetery. They decide to skip the trip when cautioned about the possibility of encountering a snake or two.
Although the church and cemetery, where a photographer is shooting a young model, are easier to find with GPS technology, lawmakers like Sen. Bob Dearing, R-Natchez, and Middleton believe a little help from the Legislature could increase the number of sightseers.
Dearing had requested $196,000 to help with repairs to the Rodney church, where the walls need to be propped up to prevent them from falling in.
This and other projects will likely have to go without state funding for another year unless Gov. Phil Bryant includes bonds when he calls the Legislature back for a special session in the next few months to address next year’s funding for the Attorney General’s office and the Department of Transportation.
“It’s disheartening because there are several projects that can use the money,” Dearing said.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect that the Bond Commission did not consider and approve the bond legislation the Legislature approved in 2016.