Progress comes, but cemeteries stay

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 24, 2003

Mud from a nearby development site covers the name and dates of a headstone at Jonestown, or Tate Cemetery, leaving only the top inches visible. (C. Todd ShermanThe Vicksburg Post)

Small cemeteries in or near the Home Depot land development are part of the local landscape and will be preserved, sources said.

The “Jonestown Cemetery” is not alone along South Frontage Road. About a mile farther north lies the Brown or Miles Cemetery in a clump of trees between Interstate 20 and South Frontage.

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James C. Hamilton Jr., owner of some of the land where graves have been found, said he thought about trying to move them. But the decision was made to leave them alone.

According to a story published in the Vicksburg Sunday Post on Jan. 15, 1978, one of the names for the cemetery near the Home Depot site came from the name of the Jonestown community. It was named after Mr. and Mrs. William Jones who built a home in the area in the early 1800s. Jonestown, mostly occupied by black families, was overrun with the creation of Interstate 20 and the frontage roads about 40 years ago.

Research by Charles Chiplin, a Vicksburg native who is a minister and a playwright, said its other name, Tate Cemetery, came from former Jonestown resident, John Tate.

According to “Warren County, Miss. Cemeteries” by Marlene Rutland Brooks, J.C. Tate, who died in January 1918 at age 56, is buried there.

Others buried in Tate Cemetery are Mollie Gilmore, identified in the 1978 feature as a noted midwife, and A. Lee Crawford Sr., identified as a poet.

Brooks lists 58 graves in Tate Cemetery, but there could be more.

Similarly, she lists the Brown Cemetery, which she identifies as the Miles Cemetery, as having only four graves: Lillie A. Brown, Albert L. Brown, J.M. Miles Jr. and a person identified only as Hana.

Records in the Warren County Tax Assessor’s Office do not list ownership for either cemetery, which is not unusual.

Charles Riles, a veteran funeral director in Vicksburg, said small cemeteries can be found all over the state. A grave was found during construction of Sherman Avenue Elementary School five years ago. A larger burial area, perhaps containing Civil War dead, was found on a shelf above the Mississippi River below the former Jett Elementary. Many of those graves were moved to make way for a casino, but the site was not developed.

Published listings of cemeteries in the area include Brooks’ book and an unpublished compilation by the late Walter Salassi. Brooks’ book lists about 128 cemeteries and graves, not counting Cedar Hill and Beulah, scattered across the county.

Riles said before there were good roads and motor vehicles, many of the outlying communities, farms, plantations and country churches were hours from Vicksburg. From the early days of settlement in Mississippi, people buried their dead on plantations or farms. Later, as new churches were established, their members started cemeteries, too.

“People just didn’t bring their loved ones into town to bury them,” Riles said.

Over the years, customs changed, plantations and family farms were sold, old home places were abandoned and churches were disbanded, leaving the graveyards dotting the landscape.

Mississippi has few laws dealing with old or abandoned cemeteries, said Scott McCoy, review and compliance assistant with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

He said Mississippi has a law against the desecration of any cemetery or burial ground and another law that allows county boards of supervisors to maintain cemeteries that are certified by the trustees of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History as abandoned.

“They have to provide a map, an inventory of the burials, the people who own it and photographs,” McCoy said of the process to have counties take over abandoned cemetery maintenance.

The department then inspects the location to determine there have been no burials in the past 50 years and then presents the request to the board of trustees, he said. Once the board approves, a certificate is issued that allows supervisors to spend public money to maintain the cemetery, if they wish to and if the money is available.

The other main law dealing with cemeteries McCoy mentioned makes it illegal to desecrate, destroy or damage cemeteries and graves.

McCoy said the department receives inquiries about how a cemetery or grave that appears to have been abandoned can be moved and explained the process is arduous.

“They first have to go to court and ask that the bodies be removed,” he said.

With few laws to follow, the petitioner must do whatever the court says, which often includes placing newspaper advertisements describing what is wanted and asking anyone who might be related to anyone buried in the graves or have some interest to come forward and comment.

“If there are no (objections or) responses, they have to hire a funeral home or archeologist to dig up the graves,” McCoy said.

“The law makes sure they rest in peace,” Riles said.