Death is supposed to be the great equalizer, at least according to the marketing materials. The reality, though, is that disparities don’t stop with someone’s pulse.
Columbus attorney Nicole Clinkscales hit that point hard at Tuesday’s Columbus City Council meeting, with a comparison ripped from the headlines.
“Probably a billion folks watched Queen Elizabeth’s funeral procession, and the thing that was so striking about it was how beautiful it was,” she said. “She will be buried in a beautiful place, and every deceased person has that same right.”
Clinkscales urged the council to compare that pristine burial to Sandfield Cemetery.
“Whether it’s Queen Elizabeth or your grandmother, when you go to visit their gravesite you want to feel good about your loved one’s remains being there,” she said. “People go to cemeteries to visit (loved ones) and reflect.”
Sandfield is in “a state of disrepair,” she said, especially the eastern portion of it.
“When you ride by it now, you almost can’t even see the grave markers,” she said.
East side vs. west side
The cemetery is located at the east end of College Street and split into two portions by Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The historic portion occupies about 10 acres on the west side of MLK and is owned by the city. The four acres on the east side are apparently in private hands.
While the city’s public works department cuts grass on the western piece, the eastern piece goes for long periods without maintenance and becomes an overgrown eyesore, Clinkscales said. Eventually people in the community are forced to try to take action themselves.
“(Citizens) are trying to mow the front of it, and there are some who mow their own family’s graves,” she said.
City Attorney Jeff Turnage said care of the cemetery is complicated by the fact that the city doesn’t own all of it. The western portion was apparently deeded to the city in the mid-1800s, but the ownership of the eastern section is murky, at best.
“We can’t find any evidence that the city owns the east side,” he said. “My paralegal has spent a lot of time going through land records, and it’s very tedious work because they have not been indexed correctly.”
The search has gone forward from 1902 to the mid-1960s currently, he said.
“The owners listed in the 1960s have passed, and now the question is who are their heirs?” he said. “We need to figure out if they inherited, and what they did with the title. It’s been very difficult to find.”
Lowndes County tax records simply list both portions of the burial ground as a cemetery, therefore taxes aren’t collected on either.
Turnage said that he and Mayor Keith Gaskin have discussed potentially taking the eastern portion via eminent domain, but the city needs a clearer idea of ownership before that can proceed. The council has not approved any eminent domain suit in any case.
“It’s never been on the council agenda to discuss it that I can remember,” Turnage said.
The western piece of the cemetery is the final resting place for some of the city’s most distinguished Black residents from the mid-19th through early 20th centuries, said Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science history teacher Chuck Yarborough.
“We know, for example, that Robert Gleed, who would go on to be Columbus’ first Black alderman, is buried here,” he said. “He was also an organizer and featured speaker of the first Eighth of May celebration in 1866.”
The Eighth of May celebration commemorates the arrival of the first Union troops in Columbus. Yarborough helps coordinate the celebration each year, including a project where his students research the people buried at Sandfield and present that research in period garb at their gravesites.
Other burials on the west side of Sandfield run the gamut from prominent businessmen to World War I veterans to Benjamin Fernandis, the first Black member of the Franklin Academy Board of Trustees.
Local historian Rufus Ward said the cemetery at one time housed Civil War veterans.
“There were 10 Union soldiers, nine Black and one white, buried there who died of typhoid,” he said.
They were later exhumed and moved to a national cemetery, at about the same time Friendship’s Union dead were relocated.
The eastern side of the cemetery is still in use, and contains burials mostly from the 20th century, including veterans of the Second World War.
It’s unclear how much of Sandfield is occupied, Yarborough said.
“We think the west side is full, or mostly full,” he said. “But there is a sparsity of markers, and we entirely know the reason for that. Many of the graves may have been marked with wood markers that decayed, or with stones laid on the ground that could have been covered up or tossed off.”
Ward said he would like to see Sandfield examined with ground-penetrating radar and magnetometers, similar to what was done at Friendship Cemetery several years ago.
“I would like to find out if there is any order to the graves out there, or if all that open ground is unmarked graves,” he said.
Sandfield vs. Friendship
The state of affairs, especially on the east side, shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone, Clinkscales said. Even the west side, in her opinion, could use some help.
“Friendship Cemetery is well maintained,” she said, referring to another large, city-maintained historic cemetery in Southside. “The trees are well-pruned, you can see all the markers. They are nicely cared for, and the city pays (a contractor) to do that work.”
Since Sandfield also is historically significant, it should receive equal care, she said.
“Tell me how we can have two public cemeteries and they tell two totally different stories,” she said Tuesday. “We have soldiers, we have people who have served this community well, and you can’t see their graves. We are desecrating our dead by not taking care of them.”
Clinkscales suggested putting up wrought-iron fencing around the west side of the cemetery, as well as contracting out the landscaping.
“We want to give it a good look, secure it, and just raise the standard,” she said.
Brian Jones is the local government reporter for Columbus and Lowndes County.
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