Cemetery funds dwindling

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 29, 2010

NATCHEZ — With only $1,000 left in their bank account, the Worthy Women of Watkins Street Cemetery are seeking financial assistance to preserve the 100-year-old grounds.

Natchez Mayor Jake Middleton, Alderman James “Ricky” Gray and Adams County Sheriff Chuck Mayfield met with the Worthy Women of Watkins Street Cemetery earlier this month.

“We’re going to try to pursue some funding to help maintain the cemetery,” Middleton said. “Obviously when all those lots were sold, they were not sold under perpetual care.”

Middleton said he has contacted the Mississippi Department of Archives and History to determine whether there are funds available for historic cemetery upkeep.

The 17-acre cemetery is the final resting place for black Natchezians, including those killed in the Rhythm Night Club fire in 1940.

Middleton suspects the cemetery took a turn for the worse once older generations died and families moved out of town.

Worthy Women of Watkins Street Cemetery member Dorothy Sanders said some families who still live in Natchez and have relatives buried in the cemetery have turned a blind eye.

“The young people are not taking interest,” Sanders said.

The cemetery was designated a historic site by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History last year, and the Worthy Women of Waktins Street Cemetery has submitted an application for the National Registry of Cemeteries.

Middleton inquired whether Adams County could assist in the cemetery’s upkeep. Adams County Board of Supervisors Attorney Bobby Cox said the county cannot maintain cemeteries located inside the city limits.

Cox cited Mississippi Code 39-5-19, which states governing boards may rehabilitate abandoned historic cemeteries within its respective jurisdictions.

“We cannot take over an abandoned cemetery inside the city,” Cox said. “The city has to do it.”

Sanders said she disagrees with Cox’s findings, and emphasized Watkins Street Cemetery is not an abandoned property.

“Natchez is inside the county. That doesn’t hold water because the city is in the county,” Sanders said.

Currently, the Worthy Women of Watkins Street Cemetery pays grass cutters $7.25 to $7.50 per hour for their services. Sanders said the group solicits donations from churches to maintain the cemetery. Saturday, members of the city’s Youth Build program tended to the cemetery as part of their community service projects.

Middleton said courthouse records could determine to which governmental entity the cemetery belongs.

“At one point in time that area could have been in the county,” Middleton said.

“We’re all trying real hard to get to the bottom of this and find who can and what we can do.”

Sanders said donations can be mailed to the Worthy Women of Watkins Street Cemetery, P.O. Box 17893, Natchez, MS 39122.