White works to honor veterans

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 14, 2005

Natchez &8212; Discovering the graves of military veterans in the Watkins Street Cemetery has increased her zeal for improvements at the old burying ground located in north Natchez, said Thelma White.

With Veterans Day approaching, the 82-year-old activist wants to honor the men whose service to country &8212; including at least one Purple Heart recipient &8212; is all but forgotten because their graves lie in tangled mats of tree limbs, leaves, brush and vines.

A familiar figure at Natchez aldermen meetings and in the offices of any official she deems able to wield influence, White, 82, for two years has sought help with cleaning, removing debris, taking out fallen trees and improving drainage at the 17-acre site in north Natchez.

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&8220;The least we can do is clean off their graves,&8221; White said. &8220;They gave their lives for us so we could be free today.&8221;

Her ambition goes well beyond the veterans&8217; graves, however. Walking through the cemetery on Wednesday, White pointed to pockets of well-kept plots, where families have taken responsibility for keeping the gravesites neat and groomed.

Many other gravesites, some with no living relatives to care for them, are barely visible through the tall brush.

White has placed small American flags on the seven veterans&8217; graves so far located: Robert Metcalfe, Willie Mazique Jr., Thomas Turner, Frederick Caldwell, George James Brooks, Robert Harold Green and Samuel Gaulden, the Purple Heart recipient.

McKinley Barnes, who maintains many of the plots at the cemetery, said he knows of at least 10 more veterans buried in the cemetery.

Barnes, 83, moved to the Watkins Street area years ago and sees the cemetery as part of his home and his life.

&8220;I moved here Christmas Day 1948 and I&8217;ve been here ever since,&8221; he said. &8220;I keep up plots for certain families. I&8217;ve been doing this a long, long time.&8221;

White depends on help from Barnes and also from volunteer Amos Jackson, 82. The three octogenarians often bring their hoes, weed-eaters and spades to the cemetery for a day of cleaning.

Jackson, a World War II veteran, said he became interested in helping at the cemetery because of family members buried there &8212; his grandmother, a great uncle for whom he is named and others.

White has organized Worthy Women of Watkins Street Cemetery Association as a vehicle for lobbying the community and local governments on behalf of the cemetery.

Letters seeking donations are ready to go out throughout the area. A fundraiser at Rose Hill Baptist Church on Dec. 30 will feature speakers recalling the lives and influence of some of the people buried at Watkins Street Cemetery.

It&8217;s a beginning, White said. With her daughter&8217;s help, another project is in the beginning stages &8212; cataloging the information found on grave markers.

Handsome stones mark some graves. Small cement blocks with crudely etched letters mark others. Each one holds a story.

White pointed to an overgrown section that slopes to the bayou skirting the northwestern border of the cemetery. &8220;Most of the graves in there are 1940 graves,&8221; she said. They are victims of the Rhythm Nightclub fire in April 1940, some of them her senior classmates who would have graduated in only a few weeks after the deadly fire occurred.

&8220;My mother didn&8217;t have the twenty-five cents it cost to go to hear the Walter Barnes orchestra,&8221; White said. &8220;So I didn&8217;t go. I cried myself to sleep. Then I woke up to hear people screaming all over the neighborhood.&8221;

The cemetery is a worthy cause, White said. She recalls vividly what set her on the task.

&8220;About two years ago, the city declared the Watkins Street Cemetery a public nuisance. I resented that. I was really offended by that and said we can do something about that,&8221; she said.

Drainage is a big problem. The city has declined to address the problem. &8220;The city says they can&8217;t put drainage over here because they might tear up graves. But look at all the graves being ruined by the flooding when it rains.&8221;

White will continue to seek help to improve the appearance and to honor those buried at the cemetery as long as she can. &8220;People tell me &8216;you can&8217;t do that; it&8217;s too big a job,&8217;&8221; she said. &8220;I tell them I&8217;m going to try. I&8217;m going to keep on worrying people about it.&8221;

She has some younger followers. She hopes they will carry the torch into the future. &8220;One day people are going to say, &8216;this is a beautiful cemetery,&8217;&8221; she said.