Watkins cemetery needs major help

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 14, 2008

The Master Gardeners of Adams County, Grow Natchez Gardens, Inc., and concerned residents of Natchez are responding to the great need at Watkins Street Cemetery.

Watkins Street Cemetery consists of 17 acres and was incorporated in 1909 by 10 men of color. It was originally called The Colored Peoples Cemetery. Throughout the years, the privately owned cemetery was managed by various funeral directors or organizations. However, maintenance deteriorated as ownership of plots became obscure or transferred to out-of-state residents.

In 2005, Mrs. Thelma White, a retired school teacher, organized the Worthy Women of Watkins Cemetery Association in a determined effort to restore and maintain this historic cemetery. With a small group of dedicated volunteers, they have been able to raise some money to remove large trees, debris, improve drainage and maintain part of the cemetery. But much more help is needed. The valiant efforts made by Mrs. White and her associates are no match for 60 years of rampant, unrestrained growth.

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The cemetery is so overgrown that the two-acre section containing the remains of more than 200 victims of the Rhythm Nightclub Fire are buried by much more than dirt. Vines, shrubs, volunteer trees and unwanted vegetation choke the site. For more than three years, Mrs. White and her friends have tried and tried to get community support in restoring and maintaining this historic site. Finally, some much-needed help is taking place. Much more is needed.

Grow Natchez Gardens, producers of the annual Symphony of Gardens Tour, is committed to sharing proceeds from the tour with local Natchez organizations for the beautification and betterment of horticultural displays. This past spring, GNG contributed $500 to the Worthy Women of Watkins Street Cemetery. In formalizing this donation, I had the opportunity to meet with Mrs. White, tour the tattered cemetery and hear its history from her.

On the day that I met her for the tour, the 85-year-old woman was hoeing weeds herself because “if no one else will help me, I’ll do it myself.” Her attitude is impressive and inspiring.

The Master Gardener membership agreed that Watkins Street Cemetery needs community help and is committed to restoring the two-acre Rhythm Club section of the cemetery in cooperation with the Worthy Women of Watkins Cemetery. Master Gardeners goals are to clear the rampant vegetation that has overtaken the area and possibly create a native plant garden somewhere on the site.

Much more needs to be done. Roads are in ruins, drainage issues are serious, and Hurricane Gustav felled numerous trees. This will involve far more than bake sales or pancake breakfasts. Serious money and effort is required to reclaim this region from the vigorous Mississippi vegetation.

Regina Charboneau is donating a Southern style afternoon tea as a fundraiser for the cemetery. From 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 6, guests will sip champagne cocktails or hot spiced tea, enjoy assorted tea sandwiches and sweets and learn more about Watkins Street Cemetery from Mrs. White and her colleagues who will be in attendance. Tickets are limited to 100 people, and are $20 each. The full proceeds will be donated to the cemetery fund. For tickets, call Twin Oaks, 601-445-0338. Donations can also be made directly to WWW Cemetery Association, P.O. Box 17893, Natchez, MS 39122 where they will be accepted gratefully.

Karen Dardick is a member of Master Gardeners of Adams County and the president of Grow Natchez Gardens, Inc.