State officials this month will consider nominating a place known as the Starkville Colored Cemetery to the National Register of Historic Places.
It sits less than a mile from the Oktibbeha County Courthouse. No one knows who owns it, though.
“It is not clear…whether the deed may never have been recorded or whether the records have just been lost,” said Bill Gatlin, National Register coordinator at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
The story behind the cemetery is that a group of freed slaves purchased the property on University Avenue not long after the Civil War had ended. Church services were held there. Then it became a burial ground, according to Gatlin.
Faded headstones stand across the property today. Many are chipped, cracked and fallen, victims of time or vandalism. The oldest found is dated 1882. The cemetery was largely abandoned by the 1930s, according to the state.
While ownership remains a mystery, so does the number of people buried on the two acres. No documents are known to exist that might identify the people who are buried there, many in unmarked graves.
“There are many unmarked graves,” Gatlin said.
For years, the landscape was not maintained. Roughly a decade ago, the local chapter of the NAACP began cleaning the property and now the grass is regularly cut.
“But there are no real efforts to maintain the markers,” Gatlin said.
If the Mississippi National Register Review Board on March 20 approves the nomination, it will be sent to the U.S. Department of the Interior for final approval.
A listing on the National Register is an honorary designation and does not provide protection for properties, Gatlin said.
“However, we are hoping that listing the cemetery on the National Register will generate more interest in preserving it,” he said.
Martha Collins, who lives in Seattle, Wash., is the driving force behind the effort to have the cemetery added to the National Register. She did not respond to messages seeking comment. But Gatlin said Collins has family members buried in the Starkville Colored Cemetery and she has been concerned about the lack of maintenance and effects of vandalism.
If the cemetery is added to the National Register, it would be the second African American graveyard in the Starkville area on the list, joining Odd Fellows Cemetery, a three-acre tract near the intersection of Hwy. 82 and Henderson Street.
There are 1,368 Mississippi entries on the National Register of Historic Places, according to Gatlin.
Friendship Cemetery in Columbus was added in 1980. But Union Cemetery and Sandfield Cemetery, the two largest African American cemeteries in the city regularly included on historical tours, are not on the list, according to the National Register of Historic Places online database.
Chuck Yarborough, a local historian and teacher at The Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, believes both would be candidates for the federal designation “because of the community leaders buried in them.”
The larger of the two, Union Cemetery, sits on N. 22nd Street. It was used mainly during the first half of the 20th century. Many World War I veterans are buried there, according to Yarborough. It is also where Robert Walker, a former slave who opened the Queen City Hotel on Seventh Avenue North, is buried.
Sandfield Cemetery is near the corner of College Street and 25th Street South. Yarborough believes it is the older of the two cemeteries. His research suggests the city purchased the graveyard in 1854 in response to complaints about blacks and whites being buried together in another city cemetery.
It was in use during the Civil War. A 1960 letter to an MUW history professor from an archivist at the National Archives and Records Service in Washington, D.C., states that in 1867, “eight colored troops and one white soldier” were exhumed from “Potter Field” and re-interred at Corinth National Cemetery. Yarborough believes Potter Field was what we now call Sandfield Cemetery.
Many African American leaders from Lowndes County from the late 19th century are buried there, including Robert Gleed Sr., a former slave from Virginia who was elected state senator from Lowndes County in 1870.
Neither Sandfield Cemetery or Union Cemetery has been abandoned. A trust group mows the grass at Union Cemetery and the city mows Sandfield Cemetery. But they are both places of old, crumbling and historic headstones.
“Cemeteries offer us a window through which we can look into our collective past,” Yarborough said. “Sandfield and Union are the final resting places of some of our county’s greatest leaders who happen to be African-American.”
William Browning was managing editor for The Dispatch until June 2016.
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