White recalls deep roots, struggles in Natchez

Published 12:34 am Sunday, June 17, 2012

LAUREN WOOD / THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Thelma White, 89, rests her hand on her grandfather Irvin Evans’ headstone Saturday evening in the Watkins Street cemetery. White is working to form an organization to preserve the historic cemetery.

NATCHEZ — What Thelma White knows about the end of slavery in Natchez she didn’t read in schoolbooks.

Stories about her grandfather, who worked as a “kitchen boy” when he was a slave at Dunleith, were passed down to White, 89, from her mother.

Though White’s relative just two generations apart from her experienced his first taste of freedom from slavery, the only black person she ever learned about in school was George Washington Carver, who cultivated the peanut.

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“There’s a lot of things I don’t know,” said White.

She does know that her grandfather came to Natchez from Virginia with a group of little boys. “He never knew of a mother or father,” White said of her grandfather.

The owners of Dunleith bought Evans at the Forks of the Road, the second-largest slave trade post in the South.

When Evans was freed, he opened a café on Franklin Street just four buildings down from the corner of the former Pine Street, where he sold pastries, baked good and candy, White said.

“As soon as he was freed, he did what he did his whole life — he went home and made pastries,” she said.

White still has the wedding dress her grandmother, a seamstress, wore in 1904. When her grandfather died in 1913, he was a respected businessman.

Though many history books in school don’t include the black history of Natchez, White has made it her mission the past nine years to see that the physical black history of the Natchez past is preserved.

As the founder of the Worthy Women of Watkins Street Cemetery, White continues to encourage the community to form an organization to preserve the cemetery where her grandfather is buried.

She is hosting a meeting at noon Saturday at Rose Hill Baptist Church to discuss options about starting a foundation for the preservation, not just maintenance, of the cemetery.

While the Worthy Women organization works to raise money to provide lawn care at the site, White wants a long-term preservation plan for the cemetery. It’s a place where black people were buried after the Civil War, when the City of Natchez banned blacks in the city cemetery. At that time, the location of the cemetery near Frazier School was outside the city limits.

The cemetery was founded when 10 men raised $500 each to buy 16 acres of land to have a place where blacks could be buried.

The fact that the first black people in Natchez who were freed from slavery are buried in the cemetery is enough it itself to merit preservation, White said.

Evans’ grave at the Watkins Street Cemetery is near the entrance on the north side of the gravel road.

Before visiting her grandfather’s grave and shaking her head at the overgrowth Saturday, White attended a Juneteenth celebration at Melrose.

While at the outdoor barbecue, James Meredith, a famous civil rights activist and the first black student admitted to the University of Mississippi, gave a surprise visit.

“We had a celebrity visit,” Natchez Association for the Preservation of Afro-American Culture Director Darrell White said.

Guest chef Michael Twitty told stories of his relatives in Virginia when they learned they were free.

“One hour, one minute of (my enslaved relative’s) life was harder than all of mine,” Twitty said, as he prodded a whole pig covered in African spices.

White enjoyed the celebration, which was attended by both black and white people, as she sat under a tree and mingled.

“It’s important for (younger generations) to know how far we have come and how important those (newly freed) people were,” White said.