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Reburying the Dead in Mississippi

gravestone with worn lettering
Photo: Jillian Kern

I arrived in Jackson, Mississippi not knowing much about the job. I didn’t even know what my co-workers looked like.

This happens to archaeologists. You get hired from job to job, often with vague instructions to show up at a parking lot early in the morning.

That first night, I spotted a man sitting outside his room, whittling some wood. He was still wearing his work clothes, caked in dirt and dried sweat. His loose, light clothing gave him away as an archaeologist. Excited to see a co-worker, I tried to greet him and strike up conversation.

“Hey! Are you an archaeologist?” I asked.

“Maybe,” he returned.

That was the first sign something was amiss. When I said I was an archaeologist, he lightened up. “Oh, I thought you might be from the media,” my new colleague grumbled.

Apparently, the job had gotten some bad press.

I knew I was working for the University of Mississippi, and I knew we were moving a cemetery. That’s what brought me to Mississippi from New York — experience in excavating human remains is a rare archaeological skill I happened to attain early in my career. I’d previously moved a cemetery in Georgia that was threatened by erosion.

I figured this job in Jackson would be similar. I was wrong. The cemetery was being moved to make way for a tire factory, and in the process it was unearthing concerns related to the area’s legacy of racism.

After a clandestine sale, the Mississippi government allowed Continental Tire to build a factory on a plot of land containing the New Salem Cemetery, a small historic cemetery that was used between the 1840s and the 1930s. New Salem would be excavated and the remains would be reinterred elsewhere. The hope was the deal would bring jobs to a struggling city.

At the start of the excavation, the small crew from the University of Mississippi, who ran the dig, was overwhelmed by the number of unmarked graves. They called for reinforcements — and that’s when I came in, in the summer of 2016.

Most of the early reporting on the situation is pretty damning. Families who had relatives buried in New Salem were not properly notified. Continental Tire declined to comment. The Mississippi Development Authority, a state agency, released a statement saying all federal and state legal and regulatory requirements were being followed, as if that would put anyone’s mind at ease. Rumors spread that archaeologists were ignoring Black burials, leaving them to be churned by construction equipment.

That’s not to say the project didn’t have its upsides. Since its abandonment in the 1930s, New Salem Cemetery had become overgrown with pine trees and poison ivy. The bodies would be moved from an old, nearly forgotten piece of land to a modern, well-maintained cemetery. Everyone that the University of Mississippi recovered would be catalogued and studied by two Ph.D. students, whose studies would reveal facts about their nutrition and other demographical data. It could give a voice to the voiceless.

But is that the best outcome? Continental Tire hardly chose that location out of paternalistic concern for an abandoned cemetery. What gave them the right to move the cemetery in the first place? Those regulatory requirements they were following were an obligation, not a nicety.

While the excavation may have been born of corporate greed, it was performed by scientists who cared. There was an exhaustive survey to locate the purported Black cemetery near New Salem, but nothing was found.

The surprising number of unmarked graves suggested that we had already found the Black portion of the cemetery. The physical separation between Black graves and white graves could not be discerned — the site had undergone too many changes.

Sometimes it was possible to tell if a grave was white during excavation — recovering a Confederate belt buckle or an ornate coffin, for instance — but it was usually impossible. Sometimes the site’s acidic soil, a result of the pine overgrowth, was so harsh that individuals’ bones had entirely disintegrated. All that remained was a gray shadow, stained by their fat.

Whatever barrier separated white burials from Black ones a century ago was gone. Either way, burials would not be separated by race in the new cemetery.

The Clarion Ledger, Jackson’s local paper, told the story of Ernestine Jones, a 91-year-old with relatives in New Salem who was excited at the thought of a re-integrated cemetery. She called racism the “Achilles heel of the South and the nation for centuries.”

The superficialities that separate us and have caused so much suffering are erased by time. The issue of race plagued New Salem from its first burial through its excavation. The reinterment of New Salem didn’t erase any evil, but it did reveal its pointlessness.

Kevin Garrett is a graduate student in Columbia University’s M.S. program in Sustainability Science.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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Claudia Dreifus`
2 years ago

Great work, Kevin. Congrats

Thinus Venter
Thinus Venter
2 years ago

Great read! Amazing job, Kevin. The line, “All that remained was a grey shadow, stained by their fat,” will now frame the way I think about conversations regarding race.

2 years ago

Thanks for your work here.