Help us restore Watkins Street Cemetery

Published 12:02 am Friday, March 25, 2016

A retired teacher of Natchez and Louisiana, born in Natchez of former slaves, I became concerned about the Afro-American cemetery at Watkins Street.

In a town like Natchez, we know about the city cemetery, which had a place for all religions and groups before the Civil War. After the war, there was no site in Natchez for 40 years for blacks to be buried. Our people were buried in county church sites or were disposed of in the huge land formerly called “The Devil’s Punchbowl,” located on the bluffs of Natchez up river from the city.

It is a huge bowl-shaped area where trees wee growing down into it, as far down as one can see. No one had ever explored its depths.

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Blacks were denied all rights to the city and even public areas. Finally, 10 brave men formed a committee to ask for burial space, and they were sold the 17 acres of land at the end of Union Street among the bayous there for $700.00 each.

That was in 1909, more than 40 years after freedom. Only two of these leaders are buried there. The James family was allowed to live there to help with burials. Few records have been found.

In 1940, the Rhythm Night Club tragedy occurred. No special place for burials was provided. Most unrecognizable bodies were buried in three large mass groups or pits. Some were buried in graves leading down to the pits. The city’s comments were to get them (the bodies) off the streets as they formed a serious health hazard.

In 2004, after I retired from teaching, nothing had been done to pressure the cemetery, and it was rapidly deteriorating. Some of the serious problems were and still are: (1) that a lake of water settles in the center near the entrance area, (2) the back area (acreage) is overgrown and (3) erosion of the front area is claiming large clumps of the original boundaries. Because another private, well-maintained cemetery had been organized, this historic site became even more neglected.

About that same time, I wrote to the Mississippi Department of Archives & History (MDAH) to ask whether this cemetery was listed as a historic cemetery. It was not listed, even though it included most of the black citizens of Natchez since 1909.

The next year, MDAH came to Natchez to map and record the cemetery. At that time, I organized the “Worthy Women of Watkins Street Cemetery” as a maintenance group. We began clearing and restoring the cemetery. Timber from the back acreage was sold to Ransom & Company for $3,000. There were additional donations of $3,000, and we were ready to build and restore.

Unable to do anything, I resigned from the Worthy Women. I realized then that a preservation organization was necessary. “The Descendants of Afro-Americans,” a newly-formed preservation organization, certified by the State of Mississippi and the federal government, is ready to start the restoration process. Expert advice on erosion and drainage is the primary need at this time.

Donations may be sent to: The Descedants of Afro-Americans c/o Home Bank, 500 Main St., Natchez, MS.


Thelma T. White is the founder of The Descendants of Afro-Americans.