Historian to be honored for mapping cemetery

Published 2:17 am Monday, May 22, 2017

NATCHEZ — A local historian and trained archaeologist is set to receive an award for mapping the historic Watkins Street Cemetery in Natchez.

The Association for Gravestone Studies will honor retired instructor and author Jim Barnett with the Fred Oakley Award at the association’s annual conference at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala., next month.

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The award is to recognize Barnett’s “dedicated documentation and mapping of the historic Watkins Street Cemetery.”

“From looking at your long career dedicated to the history of Natchez, it seems a worthy extension of this work,” the AGS Board of Trustees wrote in a letter to Barnett. “Therefore we thank you for your work for and on such important historic and fragile cemetery.”

In 2012, Barnett embarked on a project to map the more than 100-year-old historically black cemetery on Watkins Street as archaeological sites are mapped. Barnett had learned that the nonprofit organization that oversees the cemetery — the Worthy Women of Watkins Street — had been quoted a price for a map that was out of its reach. Barnett contacted the organization and offered to volunteer his services to complete a map.

Barnett mapped more than 1,400 graves in a seven-acre area and created an alphabetical list of those known to be buried in Watkins Street and corresponding numbers that match the names to the gravesites. Additionally, the map distinguishes graves of well-known residents, including Susie B. West, and several other details about the cemetery.

The field maps for the project are quite large, Barnett said, and included every object in the cemetery. Barnett used a transit and a 50-meter tape to map the cemetery and worked on the project from 2012 to 2016.

The undertaking of the mapping project was a “Herculean effort,” Historic Natchez Foundation Executive Director Mimi Miller said. The foundation honored Barnett this year with the Mary Postlewaite Award for his work in the cemetery.

Following the completion of the maps, Barnett gave the field and final maps to the Historic Natchez Foundation and copies to the Worthy Women and recently to the Natchez Museum of African-American History and Culture.

“The records of the cemetery don’t exist anymore,” Miller said. The cemetery was started by a private burial organization. Over time the organization dissipated, and records were lost.

The Worthy Women, who took on the cemetery in 2005, Barnett and others have attempted in recent years to utilize different resources to find out who is buried in the cemetery and create new records, Miller said.

“Just time spent out there doing it … it was a Herculean effort,” Miller said. “That’s the only way I know how to put it. … Jim is an amazing person … and he saw a need and he went about meeting it. The community owes him a great debt of gratitude for the work he has done at Watkins Street.”

Barnett said he is surprised and honored to be recognized be the Association for Gravestone Studies, an organization he learned about from University of Alabama professor and friend Ian Brown, who has also done work at Watkins Street Cemetery and nominated Barnett for the award.

Barnett said his work would not have been possible without the assistance of the Worthy Women, particularly member Dorothy Sanders, who has helped lead the group’s efforts in recent years.

“She was out there the whole time I was there,” Barnett said. “She has really dedicated herself to the cemetery. … It’s a never-ending labor they do to keep that cemetery up.”

Sanders said the Worthy Women are sincerely appreciative of Barnett’s work and that the map will make it easier for relatives to find their loved ones buried in the cemetery.

“We appreciate him doing this,” Sanders said. “To me, it took a lot of dedication for him to come out and spend those hours doing it.”