Watkins Cemetery funds needed for study

Published 12:05 am Monday, September 5, 2011

NATCHEZ — A historical study to garner the Watkins Street Cemetery the attention some say it deserves would cost a nonprofit group that works to maintain it much more than the group has been struggling so far to collect.

“If we had enough money to pay (for the study), we wouldn’t have a problem keeping the grass cut,” said Darrell White, director of Natchez cultural heritage tourism and the Natchez Association for the Preservation of Afro-American Culture Museum.

Five members of the nonprofit group, the Worthy Women of Watkins Street Cemetery Association, met Saturday in the Natchez Council Chambers for the group’s quarterly meeting.

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White said many black Natchezians are buried in the cemetery of questionable private ownership because they were once not allowed to be buried at the Natchez City Cemetery during the Jim Crow era.

While the nonprofit group tries to maintain the unkempt cemetery as best as it can, no plans exist for the permanent maintenance of the cemetery.

White said group or some other entity would need to come up with $60,000 for study by the group New South Associates.

“To do a study, it raises the stature of the property,” White said.

New South Associates, a cultural resource management firm based in Stone Mountain, Ga., is the same company that contracted with the U.S. General Services Administration to restore and update plaques at the U.S. Federal Courthouse on Pearl Street to include the names of 581 black World War I veterans.

“(If the company studies the cemetery), it’s not just us saying ‘It’s a historic site.’

“These folks tell other folks in their circle that there is an outstanding property there in Natchez, Miss., that’s been overlooked,” he said.

Before White’s presentation about the study, members of the nonprofit group brainstormed ways to raise money through fundraisers or requests to local government boards.

But White said a study by New South Associates brings attention and funds from outside Natchez and possibly across the country to the cemetery.

White said the study uses mapping documentation to preserve and interpret significant African American historical sites.

Seeing the potential of what the New South Associate’s involvement can do for similar projects, such a historical cemetery in Washington, Ga., validates the efforts of the Worthy Women, White said.

“It seems like the city and county could (pay for the study) and get us out of their hair,” member Ernestine Robinson said.

White said he is also waiting on an opinion from Attorney General Jim Hood about the legality of using inmates from the Adams County jail for upkeep at the cemetery.

State legislation was recently passed allowing county inmates to maintain historic cemeteries, but County Attorney Bobby Cox said in May the county could not use inmates to maintain the cemetery because it is within city limits.

White said he was getting a second opinion from Hood on the matter because he thought the county should be obligated to keep up the abandoned cemetery.

“Until I’m able to get an answer in that regard we have to keep doing and praying like we’ve been doing and hope that those prayers will be answered,” White said.

Robinson said she would write to U.S. Congressman Gregg Harper, state legislatures and the attorney general concerning the cemetery’s upkeep.

White encouraged the members not to give up.

“It’s the squeaky wheel that gets the oil,” White said.