Alex Brown, 82, used to live across the road from the old Mt. Calvary M.B. Church graveyard, back before an owner severed the church from its graveyard and moved the building further up the road. Since that time, the disembodied graveyard has slipped away from public notice. This is a surprise considering the place once served a vigorous community of sharecroppers. Community members trickled away to better pay and better jobs over the decades, while others gave segregationist Mississippi leaders like Ross Barnett and Walter Sillers the respect they deserved and deserted Mississippi to its poverty.
Brown stands like a gnarled stump impervious to heat and humidity over what he claims is the old cemetery. Torn from a depopulated church with no congregation, the graveyard was left to the trees and weeds. The cemetery was decommissioned in 1957, according to Sunflower County administrators, but it appears that some neighbors can’t wait to erase its existence.
“There used to be tombstones over here by that big tree and them graves were all around here,” says Brown, pointing out over a field surrounded by encroaching soybeans. “But they’re gone now. They done torn ‘em down.”
Brown, who goes by the name “Hambone” to his friends, lives in the central city of Indianola now and almost got lost finding his old home. He is confident who is buried out here in this Black cemetery, however.
“Everybody but my parents are here,” he announced to a swampy chorus of insects. “This place used to be an old Indian graveyard before it was a Black graveyard. Now it ain’t nothin.’ These folks spent all their lives working the fields out here by this old bayou and now ain’t nothing here.”
The cemetery—if you can call it that—snuggles up to a cypress-choked wetland that possibly used to be a section of Porter Bayou, before the small creek changed its route. It left its water, however, and the mosquitoes. The deceased inhabitants, many forgotten and left to linger in the buzzy, fetid wetness, have nothing to mark their existence. Multiple witnesses insist this has not always been the case.
Sharecropper graveyards don’t usually have expensive or prominent headstones like white graveyards, but Indianola resident Bonnie Hutchinson swears the old cemetery had plenty. Now she can find only one.
“I only seen one tombstone, but back then, most everybody out there had one,” Hutchinson said. “My grandaddy had one. I got two grandfathers out there and they both had one, but I don’t see them nowhere. I had a first cousin out there and I know they put one on that little baby.”
Hutchinson said the lone remaining tombstone she found was lying flat on the ground.
Despite appearances, the Sunflower County Tax Assessor’s office does have a record of the graveyard. Aerial photos of the land show the spot growing over with shrubbery in 2016, which was the most recent footage of the place recorded by the county. The northern half of its four-acre plot is mowed clean now. To the unskilled eye, it looks like the headstones have not merely been knocked over; they appear to have been removed entirely.
“Why would anyone do that,” Hutchinson asked. “Why don’t someone do something?”
Mississippi law has little patience for graverobbing, digging up bodies or any of that ghoulish stuff. Offenders face up to three years imprisonment or a $5,000 fine for that dirty business. Plowing over a Black person and planting beans on their face is a different matter, however. Rugged, go-getter behavior like that—in the service of capitalism, no less—warrants only a misdemeanor fine of $500, according to state law. A Pearl River County man recently faced felony charges for robbing a cemetery in 2017, but that was a much younger cemetery. (Plus, it contained white people.)
What confuses Black Indianola residents is why the headstones are gone, if nobody’s stolen the land for planting. Nearly every inch of the Mississippi Delta is covered with some sort of crop. Rows of corn, soybeans and sorghum blanket every acre that is not cut by a waterway or bayou. A field of beans tiptoes up to the very edge of the cemetery border, but stops just short of the fertile section containing human remains.
Resident Jackie Simpson says he knows what happened, then adds the explanation is depressing in its callousness.
“I remember coming through here and I saw [farmers] in the cemetery out there,” Simpson said. “It was some years back, but time flies by so fast. I personally saw them turning around out there, and they were knocking the tombstones down with their big tractors and their cultivators. … It got me kind of angry when I saw it because my great grandmother, Pinky Lee Dunbar, is buried out there and my Poppa’s buried out there.”
The Lighthouse was unable to reach any farmers who could speak to the desecration. A representative of Lipe Farms, on nearby Fairview Road, said he remembered riding his horse past the cemetery for years and vouched for the graveyard’s presence but, visibly, the place only exists in county records and in the minds of witnesses.
That’s enough for Indianola resident Linda Myles to file charges with the Sunflower Sheriff’s office.
“I’m going to the county,” she said. “You’d think somebody ought to be able to do something. This don’t seem right.”
Myles, who has relatives buried on the Skelton Road plot, might have a miniscule chance of nabbing a misdemeanor charge, providing the offenders can be identified. Her complaint could have some standing because the land deed still belongs to the cemetery, even if a farmer is using the graves to parade around his farm machinery in military formation. Mississippi Rep. Willie Bailey, D-Greenville, warns her odds of protecting her relatives’ memories are slim to nonexistent, however, and that most complainants have even less chance than that.
“I can take you to two or three cemeteries that have been cut up and plowed under. It’s been going on all my life,” said Bailey. “Most times the land for these Black cemeteries is given by the farmer to those Black (sharecropper) churches, and once they cease to use them, there’s a reverter clause in the deed (that activates). In most cases, there’s not even a document showing the farmer has given it to the inhabitants and the farmer’s family can just do whatever they want to it. … That’s still shocking to me, though, because I would not dare go in and desecrate a graveyard and disrespect people like that, but some whites have no respect for Black heritage. Some do, but most don’t.”
Myles argued she isn’t surprised by the creepy interloping. Theft and abuse of Black-owned land has been a reality in Mississippi for untold decades.
“This whole place around here (Indianola) used to be owned by Black folks, but we’ve been losing our farms for years,” she said.
Without adequate support, a farmer’s livelihood teeters on the edge of having too much rain one season or having too little the next. One too many bad yields and the bank collects on the debt and the farm gets sold. In the Delta, Black-owned foreclosed land frequently ends up in the hands of majority-white agribusinesses, apparently with the blessing of the federal government.
Racist U.S. officials refused to include Black farmers in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal loans for agriculture, which gave white farmers an advantage with every season. Many giant, farm-gobbling agribusinesses enjoyed federal handouts throughout the massive land grab. Huge, productive businesses like Perthshire Farms nabbed more than $19 million in federal subsidies from 1995 to 2016, and even the cemetery’s horse-riding neighbor, Lipe Farms, collected $281,321 in subsidies between 1995 and 2013. The systemic discrimination and the brutal cycle of debt it aggravated is one of the reasons President Biden included $5 billion in his huge stimulus bill for farmers of color—at least before white farmers sued to stop him. In the meantime, Black farmers have lost more than 90 percent of their land within the last 70 years.
If the living can barely afford to keep their land, what could possibly protect the dead?