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Mystery: Rare Marker Calls Into Question Cemetery’s Founding Date

September 29, 2009

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Mystery: Rare Marker Calls Into Question Cemetery’s Founding Date

imageVICKSBURG, MISSISSIPPI – W.W. Williamson has been dead for 150 years. That much is known.

His gravestone in Beulah Cemetery has only recently been discovered, however ? and that could rewrite the history of what some call one of the most significant African-American landmarks in Warren County.

Nothing is known about Williamson other than the dates of his birth and death, but finding his headstone has volunteers and archaeologists alike excited about its implications.

?I jumped up and down and hollered when they called me over and showed it to me,? said Karen Frederick, a member of the Beulah Restoration Committee and coordinator of volunteer efforts to clear and restore the graveyard. ?All I have ever heard is that this cemetery dated back to 1884.?

That is 25 years later than the date of death chiseled on Williamson?s tombstone.

The marker was discovered Aug. 31 by two volunteers from AmeriCorps NCCC, Paige Wierikko, 23, of Sheboygan, Wis., and Ellen Wallin, 19, of Portland, Ore. It indicates that he was born June 4, 1815 and died July 3, 1859.

The stone is perhaps 30 inches tall and 18 inches wide, and features in carved, raised-relief a wreath surrounding the words ?My husband.? At the bottom is an inscription: ?The Lord is loveing unto every man and his mercy is over all his works.?

The grave appears to have a marker at the foot, also ? a flat stone without engraving. Cemetery general manager Leo Sims said it is not unusual to find both a head- and footstone on old graves at Beulah.

Archaeologists from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Vicksburg District Rodney Porter and Chris Koeppel have become involved in the work at the cemetery and are assisting in examining Williamson?s grave amd with general cemetery restoration.

?The marker definitely looks authentic,? Porter said. ?Judging by the size of the stone, and the wreath on it, he was probably a person of influence.?

Porter said he and Koeppel would use ?ground-penetrating radar? to detect any remains at the gravesite in order to verify that it was indeed a grave and not simply a memorial marker. ?The coffin has probably already decomposed, but the instruments will show if there is a depression in the ground, and will tell the dimensions of the void.?

Sims, whose father was caretaker and gravedigger at Beulah for decades, said many more graves appear to be in the woods behind Williamson?s and probably date to the same era. ?You will find graves all in there. Maybe they were burying out here before they got organized,? Sims said.

The area behind Williamson?s grave slopes down into a gully, and is thick with brush, overgrown vines and other vegetation. Headstones are visible but workers will probably not venture down to see if dates are visible until the leaves fall. ?We?re hoping during the winter to go in and see what else can be found,? Sims said.

Adding to the mystery, Sims also said Williamson might not even have been black. It?s known that some whites are buried in the Beulah graveyard, he said, and Williamson?s headstone is uncharacteristic for a black man of the era.

?The stone is relatively expensive,? he said. ?We really have no way of knowing, but I don?t think a black man would be able to afford it during those times.?

Vicksburg funeral director Charles Riles, who has extensively researched cemeteries and graveyards in the city and county, said that though many people believe the before the 1940s blacks were not allowed to be buried in Cedar Hill, the city?s cemetery on both sides of Lovers Lane, and whites were not buried in Beulah, in fact both blacks and whites were buried in both cemeteries, though it was not common.

?There is a lot of folklore associated with Beulah Cemetery,? Riles said.

Conjecturing about Williamson?s headstone, Riles said it might have been private land at the time, outside Beulah?s borders, or that Williamson was originally buried somewhere else and later moved.

The accepted history has Beulah ? named for the prophetic Beulah Land in the Bible where the Jews were to come home from exile ? established by the Vicksburg Tabernacle No. 19 Independent Order of Brothers and Sisters of Love and Charity. The land was purchased by from Harvey and Lucy Shannon for $1,000, and the cemetery originally comprised 52 acres south of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard where it dead-ends near the border of the Vicksburg National Military Park.

Sales and transfers of land to the park over the years have reduced Beulah to 14.5 acres. About 5,500 graves are there, spread in no particular pattern over its hillsides and lowlands. Some of Vicksburg and Warren County?s most prominent black citizens are buried there, including the founders of the Dillon and Jefferson funeral homes and educators Rosa A. Temple and G.M. McIntyre.

Beulah burials from all city funeral homes began to slow in the 1940s but have continued on a limited basis even in recent years. Trees, brush, vines and other vegetation began to overgrow the wooded, hilly area, however.

Intermittent efforts to clear and restore the area have taken place over the years and have included herbicide-spraying by the city and volunteers coming in with swingblades and gas-powered weed trimmers.

In April, Vicksburg High School students from the service club Project Image spent part of their spring vacation clearing brush, downed trees and overgrown weeds. The project earned students community service points they needed for graduation, and cleanup continues every Saturday with student volunteers. The AmeriCorps NCCC team came out in August.

The Corps became involved in the project through its commitment to VHS and an ?adopt-a-school? community-involvement project, Frederick said.

VHS assistant principal Dr. Josephine Calloway said the school hopes to involve students inside the classroom as well, writing research papers, developing a Web site and learning how to conduct interviews. The interdisciplinary aspect, involving English, history, technology education, science and other academic areas is a great learning tool, she said.

?What?s so exciting about Beulah is that most of the students have ancestors who are buried there,? Calloway said. ?They don?t know about that aspect of their history, but we?re trying to help them connect with their past as well as serve their community.?

Porter and Koeppel are expected to be helpful in the academics as well as field work, as Calloway hopes they?ll lead a workshop for students on how to conduct interviews, which are a required part of research papers for juniors and seniors.

The Corps archaeologists also will help restore areas at the cemetery that have been damaged by erosion, resulting in collapsed retaining walls and mudslides. Fallen trees, too, are a threat to the landscape and gravestones. Sims carries a machete as he walks through the grounds, hacking at vines that he says are the main cause of trees dying.

?The Corps can help us as we try to find ways to do the restoration,? Frederick said.

That makes Sims, happy, to have the help, make the area accessible and uncover new information.

?You?re going to find something new every time you come out here,? said Porter.

Article by: Pamela Hitchins

Contact Pamela Hitchins at [email protected]