Watkins Street cemetery is worthy of your time, money

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 7, 2008

There are many within our nation’s black communities who identify with a single word in the AKAN language of Ghana, West Africa.

That word is Sankofa. Its meaning embraces the concept that one must look and take from the past, that which is good and bring it into the present in order to make positive progress through the benevolent use of knowledge. Others might say “looking back toward the future.” I am writing you today to ask that you do just that.

In 1908, during the Jim Crow era of racial segregation in the South, blacks were denied many opportunities. The interpretation of laws often dictated where one could live, shop, work, eat, go to school, have access to public accommodations and even be buried. Now, there were a few exceptions to this rule at the Natchez City Cemetery for certain prominent blacks, but for the rest of the black community the availability of burial space was limited to family land, church cemeteries or the Natchez National Cemetery if they had served in the armed forces or were dependants of those who served.

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In response to these conditions a group of 10 community minded individuals banded together to form the Natchez Colored Cemetery Association. The Watkins Street Colored Cemetery was established and has provided burial space for families for the past 100 years. The founders of the cemetery are now long gone, as are the descendants of many of the interred. The final resting place of so many, including victims of the tragic Rhythm Night Club fire and fallen U.S. veterans has fallen into disrepair.

The federal government provides the funding for the Natchez National Cemetery; the City of Natchez provides supplemental revenue to the Natchez City Cemetery. However, there are no consistent funding sources for the maintenance and upkeep of the Watkins Street Cemetery. If not for the passion and tireless efforts of Mrs. Thelma White and the Worthy Women of Watkins Street Cemetery Association, the entire site would be lost to the ages.

These willing workers need our help. I would hate to think that racial attitudes of the past foster indifference today to the plight of the Watkins Street Cemetery.

If my words have touched you in any way, then consider this. On Veterans Day, Nov. 11, take a walk or ride through the Watkins Street Cemetery (North Union St., two blocks from Thompson School).

Do this in remembrance of our communities’ fallen soldiers and the many others buried there. Come and see for yourself what work needs to be done, and then do something.

Allow yourself to be moved to action. Sentiments alone are just not good enough. The original founders saw a need within the community and took action. They purchased the 17 acres of land. The least we can do is take action to maintain it for the good of the whole community.

Adopt the principals of Sankofa. Look to the efforts and sacrifices made by previous generations as we prepare to face the challenges of the future. Ask yourself the following question: “Would you not want your final resting place maintained?”

Volunteer your time to help reclaim the Watkins Street Cemetery from disrepair and ultimate despair, or you can make a memorial donation to: Worthy Women of Watkins Street Cemetery Association, P.O. Box 17893, Natchez, MS 39122.

Darrell White is the director of the NAPAC Museum.