The Mississippi Delta

Abdulrahman Ajibola

Abdul at Eugene's Grave

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 headstone of Eugene Powell
The headstone of Eugene Powell
Willie Earl Hudson_Scott Cemetery

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.

The Crossroads

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.

The Crossroads

Robert LaForge Library
Robert LaForge Library

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.

Dr. Moore at the Bolivar County Courthouse in Cleveland
Dr. Moore at the Bolivar County Courthouse in Cleveland

Rosedale Courthouse

Bolivar County

Bolivar County Library Annex
Bolivar County Library Annex

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.

Mound Bayou

We also visited the historic all-Black town of Mound Bayou!

Mound Bayou Commons Cemetery
Mound Bayou Commons Cemetery
Isaiah Montgomery co-founded the all-Black town of Mound Bayou in 1888.
Isaiah Montgomery co-founded the all-Black town of Mound Bayou in 1888.

Isaiah Montgomery’s Grave

Mound Bayou Commons Cemetery contains the graves of several important historical figures in Mississippi history. The grave of former state legislator and town founder Isaiah Montgomery remains in respectable condition.

Benjamin Green

The grave of Benjamin Green, however, is broken and seriously in need of repair. We certainly hope to raise the necessary funds to rehabilitate his marker in the future.

The grave of another town founder, Benjamin Green, has fallen over and needs repair.
The grave of another town founder, Benjamin Green, has fallen over and needs repair.

Mary Frances Hurt

Kneeling on the former site of St. James MB Church

Mary Frances Hurt kneeling in Spain Cemetery
Mary Frances Hurt kneeling in Spain Cemetery

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.

Desecretion

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.

Broken Headstone at the location of the old St. James Church
Broken Headstone at the location of the old St. James Church

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.

White Cemeteries list at the Carrollton Library
White Cemeteries list at the Carrollton Library
White Cemeteries list at the Carrollton Library
White Cemeteries list at the Carrollton Library
Confederate Monument Dedication flyer from 1905
Confederate Monument Dedication flyer from 1905

Mitchell Springs Cemetery – Teoc, MS

Ms. Hurt showed us another African American cemetery

Mitchell Springs Cemetery_temp(1)
Mitchell Springs Cemetery