Squabble erupts over Beulah progress

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 21, 2000

City and state officials defended Beulah Cemetery restoration efforts Monday against critics who say the process has moved too slowly.

Mayor Robert Walker said the project would be done before Christmas, whether under a traditional contract or by using inmate labor.

City Planner Ronnie Bounds, who had been spearheading the effort from City Hall, also said publicly for the first time that he has asked to be removed from the project.

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“I feel it was in my best interests to request of the mayor and aldermen that I have nothing further to do with the Beulah project,” Bounds said.

Bounds wouldn’t say why he wanted off the project, but Yolande Robbins, head of the private Beulah Cemetery Restoration Committee, and Bounds have differed sharply on how to proceed with restoring the fraternal burial ground that has become overgrown and dilapidated for lack of maintenance for many years.

Beulah abuts the Vicksburg National Military Park at the east end of Martin Luther King Boulevard. The cemetery, well over 100 years old, contains the graves of many leading black citizens.

In Monday’s meeting, Robbins repeated her earlier statements that the cemetery committee was ignored when members disagreed with city recommendations that cutting the overgrown vegetation wait until after the first frost.

“On at least three separate occasions, the cemetery committee voted to proceed immediately,” she said. “We were never told that decision was just going to be ignored.”

State Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, who wrote 1999 legislation authorizing $50,000 for the project and reauthorized the same money for this year, questioned what the holdup was.

“I’m kind of appalled,” Flaggs said. “I never envisioned $50,000 being so hard to spend.”

But Kenneth P’Pool, director of historic preservation for the state Archives and History Department, which with the city is the conduit for the grant money, pointed out that unforeseen legal complications, problems determining the cemetery’s borders and a lack of bidders last summer made moving more quickly impossible.

“At the Department of Archives and History, we’re sorry that it hasn’t moved forward faster than this,” P’Pool said. “But I think we’ve worked through most of this and we’re ready to move on the physical work.”

The city is advertising again for bids from contractors to cut down vegetation and clean the cemetery after no offers were made in an original round. Walker said the bids will be opened Dec. 8, and work can begin within a week after that.

“This project will be done before Christmas, definitely,” Walker said.

The city is also exploring using state prisoners to do the work. Questions about the legality of that option, including whether workers need to be licensed and bonded, will have to be answered first, however.

Walker said it is best to wait until after the frost to minimize the danger of snakes in the tall brush and to allow workers to better see the tombstones through the foliage and avoid damaging them.

North Ward Alderman Gertrude Young, who said her mother, grandfather and uncle are buried in Beulah Cemetery, assured Robbins and Flaggs that any delays were unintentional.

“In no case was anybody trying to stop the train from moving,” Young said.

South Ward Alderman Sam Habeeb concurred.

“It’s easy to spend money,” Habeeb said. “But we have to spend it wisely and spend it legally.”

Flaggs’ bill appropriated the money to the Department of Archives and History, and stipulated that the funds be funneled to the Beulah Committee through the Vicksburg city government so competitive bidding laws and other government financial checks would apply.