HOLLY SPRINGS, Miss. (AP) — It all started when a culvert needed repair.
Members of the Red Banks Cemetery Association thought their job was mostly about maintenance and a little administrative work
“We just thought that we were going to come in and handle taking dues, handle people buried and getting grass cut,” said Theresa Watkins, Red Banks Cemetery Association secretary.
But in October, the association began preliminary surveys to repair a culvert in the cemetery. When they discovered 121 unmarked graves that possibly held slave remains, they were shocked.
“It wasn’t until we were trying to improve the cemetery . . . (that this) started all by accident,” Watkins said.
Only a month later, they uncovered 125 additional unmarked graves. There are still two acres of land yet to be surveyed that may hold additional unmarked remains.
The discoveries have sparked conversations in the Red Banks community about honoring the dead, righting ancient wrongs and working collectively to give a voice to the people buried there.
In nearby Holly Springs, about 15 minutes away, these conversations about the remembering of difficult history are familiar.
While Holly Springs is well-renowned for its Pilgrimage Tour of Historic Homes, Behind the Big House seeks to shine a light on often neglected history by focusing on the dwellings of enslaved people.
Chelius Carter, president of Preserve Marshall County and Holly Springs, is still in the planning phases for the 9th annual Behind the Big House Program.
“For the typical old antebullum house tour, it’s hardly mentioned usually that they had slaves,” Carter said. “That lifestyle did not exist or happen without this humble structures behind the big house, out of sight, out of mind, and the enslaved people who lived in there making that lifestyle possible.”
Despite mixed reactions from the community, Carter said the program is important in telling the whole story of how slaves helped shape the history of Holly Springs.
A TIME TO PAY TRIBUTE
The discovery in Red Banks started when Bennett Smith of Omega Mapping Services in Oxford used ground penetrating radar to help identify any unmarked graves.
“We were under the impression that there were only going to be maybe 20 at the most, and then as he got going, it was like, wow. This is amazing,” said Red Cemetery Association treasurer Ralph Farrell.
Currently, Omega has marked each grave. The cemetery association is still trying to contact Mississippi Department of Archives and History, as well as several colleges, for help identifying the people buried in the unmarked graves and tracing their lineage.
The reason the cemetery association believe slaves are buried in Red Banks Cemetery is because of church histories and oral testimony.
The history of the Red Banks Baptist Church, with which the cemetery is adjacent but not affiliated with, suggests slaves were among several to be buried in the cemetery. According to historical research by genealogist Eunice Buffington of Family Tree Buff, the church was once called Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, established in 1848.
In September 1866, following the emancipation of slaves, the black members of Pleasant Grove Baptist Church were granted letters of dismissal and formed their own congregation elsewhere in Red Banks. The current Pleasant Grove Baptist Church represents the black congregation, and Farrell said the cemetery is working with Pleasant Grove Church to possibly identify some of the people buried in Red Banks Cemetery.
It’s also more than just a hunch from locals: since the first 121 graves were found, the association has been working with the assistance of Buffington and, more recently, Nicka Smith and her team from BlackProGen, to trace the genealogy of the people buried in the cemetery.
Buffington has been doing genealogy for the past 12 years. Her career began after her time in the army, where the only other people she met named Buffington were white or Cherokee. Curious, she decided to trace her own lineage, where she was able to find her ancestors’ slave owners and trace her family line back to their Mississippi routes.
“I was happy to assist them in doing some of that same kind of research,” Buffington said.
Buffington has been able to locate the descendants of three slaves known to be buried in Red Banks Cemetery and said even she herself found some family connection to the cemetery through the Richmond line.
“For African Americans, before the 1870s, they had no identity. They couldn’t go back any farther to trace their lineage to have any identity,” Buffington said. “To be able to find and say that, ‘My fifth great-grandparent is interred there,’ ... means a lot to somebody.”
Thanks to a donation, the Red Banks Cemetery Association can order a monument to honor the unmarked graves.
“Our intentions are, as we get names, they will have a plaque that we put on the back with that person’s name,” Farrell said.
A few people who believe they have enslaved loved ones interred in Red Banks have contacted the cemetery association. The church is encouraging anyone who can offer information about possible loved ones buried in the cemetery to reach out.
“It’s time this generation pay tribute to that generation, and everybody’s heart is ready for it. Maybe it hadn’t been in the past,” Watkins said.
A SHARED HISTORY
In Holly Springs, the inspiration behind the “Behind the Big House” program occurred in 2002 when Carter purchased the Hugh Craft House, built in 1851. An additional building on the property was noted only as a “shed,” but Carter quickly realized it was a slave dwelling.
“This structure is ... a rare survivor, and it’s culturally and historically more significant than the main house, because of what it represents,” Carter said.
After some research, he found Holly Springs had a plethora of slave dwellings. Both he and his wife, Jenifer Eggleston, decided to create a community-wide program for slavery interpretation in 2012.
Carter said Behind the Big House represents the shared but deeply conflicted history of slavery.
“We’re not a political action group. We’re history,” Carter said. “We hope to start a dialogue. Please continue that dialogue. It’s healthy to talk about things. And quit yelling.”
The project receives some pushback from people who do not understand the point of talking about the past, Carter said. Joseph McGill, founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, has been a partner since the beginning. As part of his demonstrations, McGill sleeps within slave dwellings and talks about the lives of enslaved people.
That first year, Carter said they were confronted by one woman who argued masters loved slaves. As an example, McGill and Carter compared those relationships to modern relationships; while there may be an emotional bond there, the slave to owner relationship was ultimately one where half “has no choice.”
Behind the Big House also has support. Some African American locals see it as part of their history, and the program does not just focus on the toil and work. Since 2015, Michael Twitty, an award-winning culinary historian, provides antebellum cooking demonstrations throughout the weekend, with components that also discuss music and architecture.
“To tell the story of the antebullum south and to not include the stories and the contributions of the enslaved African Americans that made that antebellum Southern culture possible ... (is) basically committing cultural genocide. You’re cutting people out of a history that’s rightfully theirs,” Carter said.
The program tours several sites and is able to continue largely with support from several partners. Jodi Skipper and Carolyn Friewald, professors in the University of Mississippi’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, provided volunteers and have performed active excavations at programs. In addition, Skipper created a template of the program for other areas to replicate and has offered several workshops. Behind the Big House also receives consistent support from the Mississippi Humanities Council.
This year’s program will be April 2-4 and welcome back McGill and Twitty. Freiwald and student volunteers conduct active excavations and present past finds. Other historic interpreters and artisans will also participate.
Though attendance often focuses on schools, Carter encouraged anyone interested in the program to attend.
This year, the project will tour the Hugh Craft House property, Burton Place and the Holly Springs Depot. Carter said slaves were used to construct the Holly Springs junction of the Mississippi Central Rail Road. After it was built, this line allowed cotton to be shipped directly to Holly Springs, making many planters millionaires and leading to the subsequent building of several mansions.
The Red Banks Cemetery Association plans to host an event “in warm weather” and will ask anyone with information to come share. Farrell hopes these recent findings encourage people to speak out.
Buffington said that as a group of different races working collectively, it is important to give a voice to those interred there in unmarked graves, whether they be white, black or Native American, and offer their descendants a place to come and visit.
Similar work is starting in other churches in the area, and Buffington hopes this will allow people to move through the still-lingering divisions of the Civil War. Watkins said while white people cannot fathom what slavery was like, they can see how everyone is connected.
“A lot of healing has to be done for people who have been wronged. America is off of slaves’ backs. We are where we are in the South because of the forefathers who were brought here,” Watkins said.
Last year, the University of Mississippi’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement gave the Behind the Big House program the inaugural award for Excellence in Community Engagement Award, which came with a $5,000 grant.
Carter said they plan to use the money for research and will be working to connect known research, ex-slave narratives and personal history of enslaved people and connect them with a house or site to create a GSI map of Marshall County. Because several ex-slaves migrated out west, he said it would take a lot of work to find all the narratives in Marshall County.
The Behind the Big House program has a duplicate in Arkansas, and there has been interest in Texas, Tennessee and in Louisiana.
“We never envisioned this as a project unique to Holly Springs or Marshall County. We saw this as a project (as a template for) any community, town, historic site, whatever, that recognizes the need to retool their historical narrative to one that’s accurate, complete, and inclusive,” Carter said.