Black community's cemetery in Mississippi Delta finds itself planted in cotton . . .

November 27, 1992|By Donna St. George | Donna St. George,Knight-Ridder News Service

BAMBOO PLANTATION, Miss. -- In the sandy, soft soil where a small black church buried its dead, there now grows a field of snowy-white cotton.

The Rev. Earnest Ware grew up here, in a plantation community of black workers who made their living picking cotton and soybeans. They slept in shacks and worshiped at their own church and dug graves in the churchyard for their dead, maybe 100 or 200 people in half a century.

Thirty years later, the community is gone, the church is gone, and now the graves sprout cotton.

"It hurts," Mr. Ware says softly, thinking of his two little brothers, great-grandmother and great-uncle, whose caskets were buried in ground now tilled. "I go rolling by, and I look and think: 'After dying they didn't even have a decent resting place.' "

Such desecration is not uncommon in the Mississippi delta and perhaps beyond. As plantation communities have died out and people have moved away, farmers have sought to plant every possible acre of land.

"It's terrible, but I would say it happens all the time," says Malcolm Walls of the non-profit Mississippi Action for Community Education, echoing the comments of several other community leaders, as well the state's chief archaeologist, Sam McGahey.

Some farmers don't know about the old cemeteries or mistakenly consider them abandoned, says James C. Cobb, a history professor at the University of Tennessee and author of a book on the Delta, "The Most Southern Place on Earth."

In other cases, Mr. Cobb says, the problem stems from "not putting a high premium on the places where black people are buried."

In the area near Bamboo Plantation, people talk of two or three other cemeteries now plowed and planted. "It really does seem bad, but they sure do it," says Martha Thomas, 61, whose husband, A. T., was once the pastor at the Bamboo Plantation church, Mount Olive Missionary Baptist, and now serves a nearby church.

But Mr. Ware and his parents are among the first to take action. Last fall they sued the owners and farmers of Bamboo Plantation, seeking $15.5 million in damages. They hope the suit will, at a minimum, deter other cemetery destruction.

"It was only half an acre of land," says Ware, 34, who was reared at the Mount Olive church and is now pastor of two others. "All that desecration for a measly half an acre."

In answer to the suit, the owner of Bamboo Plantation, Shady Bayou Farms Inc., contended that no cemetery was ever located on its land. So did farmers who have leased and worked the land since 1988, John and Terry Pieralisi.

The Pieralisi family went ahead and planted cotton for another season on the graveyard site after the suit was filed and churchgoers had been quoted in the local newspaper saying their relatives were buried there.

Asked about that planting, the attorney for the farmers, Richard G. Noble, said his clients, who have lived three miles from the cemetery all their lives, were certain that "there was no cemetery there."

In court depositions, John Pieralisi said he remembers Mount Olive church but contends: "I have no knowledge of grave sites or markers of any kind on that property." His attorney also points out that there was no deed or registered property map of the cemetery in the county courthouse.

But the Mississippi Department of Transportation's current maps show the cemetery, an official there noted. And state archaeologist Mr. McGahey said the cemetery also is prominent on his maps, which were drafted by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1967. "I don't know why there aren't more people prosecuted on this," he adds.

Mississippi law makes it a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $500 fine, to knowingly desecrate a cemetery. But Mr. Ware says: "In Mississippi, they've been doing this [desecration] so long I reckon people just figured there was nothing they could do."

The church's last burial was around 1970, for Joe Watkins, an 11-year-old boy who was Mr. Ware's classmate.

By then, the church congregation had dwindled. Blacks were moving to bigger cities in search of better jobs. And field work was becoming so mechanized that farmers were employing fewer and fewer people.

That's when Mount Olive church merged with nearby Pleasant Valley Missionary Baptist Church, where Mr. Thomas also was pastor.

Ten years later, the empty Mount Olive church was sold. And -- as so often happens in Mississippi -- the buyer carted the building off to a new site.

Which left the graveyard on its own.

As years passed, weeds grew tall in some areas and brush collected in piles, but an oak tree and a few smaller saplings still formed a shady landmark on the endlessly flat horizon.

There were a handful of tombstones in the cemetery; most graves were designated by metal markers.

On March 21, 1988, Tom Cooper, an agronomist who lived in the area, was visiting the cemetery with a friend.

Mr. Cooper noticed that the cotton fields were narrowing in on the graves. The largest headstone was toppled over and gouged by a farm implement.

Mr. Cooper read it with interest.

"It said '1940 to 1959,' and it said 'Manuel Williams,' " he remembers. "I was born that same year, and I remember thinking, 'Gosh, I've already had 30 years more than that boy had.' "

Mr. Cooper wrote his impressions in a diary. He called a news reporter, who took photos, but a story was never published.

In early 1990, Mr. Cooper returned to the cemetery.

It was gone.

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