The Mississippi Delta
Initial Field Research
The initial field research survey in the Mississippi Delta lasted three days. Dr. T. DeWayne Moore and Dr. Abdulrahman Ajibola visited several historical sites and communities in Bolivar County to conduct oral histories and archival research, which helped to identify and pinpoint the locations of historical sites in African American communities.
Our First Burying Ground
We visited the towns of Mound Bayou, Cleveland, Renova, Rosedale, Shaw, Benoit, Gunnison, and Scott, among other various localities in Bolivar County. Starting at the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund headquarters at 1164 John Street in Greenville, we drove north on Highway 1 and stopped in the small town of Metcalfe, a small community incorporated in the 1970s with the assistance of a local civil rights organization, Mississippi Action for Community Education. Former Greenville-based blues artist Eugene Powell, who the MZMF memorialized back in the early 2000s, is buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Metcalfe. We stopped by the cemetery to check the status of maintenance at the cemetery as well as drop off some funds to the local authorities who manage the burial ground.
The Delta Pine & Land Company
After we visited city hall in Metcalfe, we drove past the Winterville Mounds on our way to the Delta Pine & Land Company in Scott, where we visited the main office and spoke to a couple of farm managers about the location of cemeteries in the area. We also spoke with several men surveying the roads about burial grounds in the area, and we located a couple of overgrown graveyards amidst the oceans of cotton around Scott.
We also passed through Benoit on our way to Mound City, and we visited the infamous crossroads location, which filmmakers used in the 1986 film, Crossroads.
Delta State Archives
After collecting dirt at the Crossroads, we headed on to Cleveland, one of two county seats in Bolivar County. The county seat offers several important data collection sites for our project. First, we visited the archives in Delta State University’s Robert LaForge Library. While the archivist was on leave at the time, we spoke with one of the archival assistants on duty that day, and we scanned several of the collections related to cemeteries in the county. No comprehensive list of African American cemeteries exists in Bolivar County, but we hope to remedy that situation over the course of this project.
Bolivar County Courthouse
We also visited the courthouse to speak with the Bolivar County Chancery Clerk Brenett N. Haynes, who grew up in the county and possessed an extensive knowledge of African American communities. Not only did she provide some new information about local cemeteries, but she also promised to escort us to an abandoned cemetery in rural Bolivar County that contained the graves of her ancestors!
The tax assessors office also provided key insight into the location of burial grounds in Bolivar County. In fact, the tax assessors office maintains a state-of-the-art parcel viewing system in ArcGIS, which is available to the public. Simply click HERE to view the location and owner of every single piece of land in the county. A simple text search for the term “cemetery” immediately provides numerous results on the locations and names of cemeteries. However, most of the burial grounds do not have names associated with them in the system. Thus, our project to identify all of the African American cemeteries in Bolivar County should go a long way towards helping the tax assessors office add data to their maps in ArcGIS.
Bolivar County Library
In the annex of the Bolivar County Library is a local history room, which is filled with cemetery lists, local histories, and other publications that can only be viewed inside the library. Dr. Moore and I spent several hours examining different volumes, particularly the county cemetery lists and the local histories compiled around the time of the Bicentennial. In many Mississippi counties, you will find a host of volumes on local history published in the 1970s. Most of these volumes focus on the pioneer history of the region–that is, the pioneers who settled the Mississippi Delta following the various treaties that forced the Choctaw and the Chickasaw to settle in regions west of the Mississippi River. Most of these volumes do not contain much history prior to the mid-1800s, and almost all of them do an excellent job of silencing the histories of Native Americans and African Americans. The Bolivar County Library was not the only local library on our trip that demonstrated attempts to erase the existence of certain minorities. This particular research trip made it clear that our project was sorely needed in Bolivar County.
Mary Frances Hurt
Kneeling on the former site of St. James MB Church
St. James Cemetery
Dr. Moore and I also met up with Shannon Evans in Greenwood, where we picked up, Mary Frances Hurt, the granddaughter of Mississippi John Hurt from the bus station. She had travelled down from Chicago to ride around Carroll County and visit African American graveyards, including the burial ground of her grandfather, St. James Cemetery. I was indeed excited about this leg of the trip, but it proved a painful experience, as I learned that landowners near the grave of her grandfather had trespassed upon the cemetery grounds–IN THE EXTREME.
Indeed, a local landowner had established a separate cemetery right across the road from St. James Cemetery. In fact, the location of the new cemetery is exactly where the old St. James Church once sat. Our visit to St. James Cemetery was certainly a tragic experience. The new cemetery, Spain Cemetery, contains only a few graves, but each of them has large, respectable headstones. Unfortunately, one of the graves sits right on top of another grave. A broken headstone sits a the foot of the grave of one woman.
Carroll County Public Library
We also visited the Carroll County Public Library in Carrollton, and we confirmed that white supremacists compiled lists of white cemeteries in the 1970s. Indeed, the library also preserved some elements of Confederate heritage in the county seat.