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Help descendants revive cemetery

A new name has been given to a long-neglected, century-old cemetery that had been called the colored cemetery, the shooting park cemetery and, later, Watkins Street Cemetery.

Never officially named or allowed to be developed after being bought by 10 concerned newly freed black men led by G.W. Brumfield, it was the only answer to the law barring blacks from being buried in the city cemetery.

The land, a white landowners’ shooting park of 17.5 acres, located straight north of Union Street, was more like a park and sold as burial sites and also used for ball field and Easter egg hunts.

Generations of Natchez citizens are buried there, even Mr. Brumfield and other founders. In 1940 when the Rhythm Night Club burned and 209 people died, many of those that were unrecognizable were dumped into several large pits with no markings or indications of the sites.

The terrible thing that one realizes is that no funerals or services were hosted. On the night of the fire, screams, cries and moaning could be heard all over the city. Is it possible that people thought that dancing would send them to hell? The cemetery began to look like a forest as the years went by, and soon no indication of the burial pits could be found.

In 2002, being a deeply concerned retired teacher and resident of Natchez, I began a public awareness program, applied for recognition from Mississippi Department of Archives and History, sought help from the Natchez city aldermen and the Adams County supervisors who assured me that nothing would be done since the cemetery is privately owned and they had no obligation or responsibility for it even though Jim Crow Laws had made it a necessity.

Realizing the need for an organization to help, a 501(c)3 was organized, and a maintenance group called the Worthy Women of Watkins Street began in 2005 by five other recipients. Many whites and blacks donated much money, labor, equipment and time to our work, and soon it began to look like a cemetery should.

Special thanks to the Adams County Master Gardeners who made our cemetery situation known all over the Southeast. A video was produced of our cemetery made by Walt G.

Special help and recognition was given by Dr. Ian Brown of the University of Alabama’s Department of Archeology, who came down here twice the year, spent a week with his class mapping and recording information, later publishing the information in the national book “Gravestones.” He also included a request for donations.

Still, there was no organization to maintain, organize or preserve the cemetery. The small maintenance group would not consider taking out full responsibility for our historic site, so I resigned and formed a 501(c)3 group for the operation, maintenance and preservation of The Sanctuary for our fore parents, the first freedom of this area.

We are their descendants, and they are worthy of our honor, protection and memory of their hope for the freedom that we enjoy.

We will need the advice and help from the community. We desperately need fencing and a gate, as 4-wheelers are destroying our graves. We need donations for heavy equipment, labor and other funds. Deeds can be given to pay for a memorial gate. Please help us the descendants of those freed more than 100 years ago.

 

Thelma T. White is a retired teacher and Natchez resident.