HARRISVILLE, Mississippi – Atop a bluff overlooking the Pearl River, Cranford Wheeler stands at the edge of a cemetery where a small black church has buried people for “over a hundred years.”
There are graves beside him and behind him. But those who should be in front of him are gone.
Pine Ridge Cemetery was supposed to be the final resting place for loved ones – possibly including former slaves – but the 2020 Pearl River flooding and resulting erosion was a game-changer.
“You know, all the loved ones are floating on the river,” Wheeler said.
And no one, it seems, can do anything about it.
The Pine Ridge Baptist Missionary Church, with a congregation of about 75 that meets twice a month, has neither the authority nor the financial resources to look after stabilizing banks or moving graves to risk. And, for one reason or another, the county, state and federal agencies contacted by the Clarion Ledger, part of the USA TODAY Network, said they had no jurisdiction to intervene.
Some ‘slavery-era’ graves, another is that of a veteran
Wheeler, who lives in Harrisville with a population of about 1,300 in central Mississippi, spent 16 years cutting the grass at Pine Ridge Cemetery.
“I know all the graves here,” said the 72-year-old. “I have in-laws buried there long before my time.”
He nods slightly as he walks through the cemetery. “Like those old graves. These people came from the days of slavery.
At first glance, the cemetery appears to contain few graves as there aren’t many headstones, but Wheeler reports depressions in the ground indicating unmarked graves. Looking at the number of depressions, it becomes evident that the old cemetery is almost full, but the actual number of people buried here remains unknown.
“There are a lot, a lot of them,” Wheeler said. “They were pretty much buried on top of each other.”
At one point, Wheeler said, the cliff stretched about 20 feet. With the loss of this land, however, came the loss of the remains of some loved ones, but it is not known exactly how many.
“It’s a tough guess,” Wheeler said. “I would say at least about 10.”
Other graves are dangerously close to the edge. Some, like the grave of a US Army veteran, are about seven feet away. What appears to be anonymous graves are about two feet away. Some are less in danger because they are located about 40 meters from the edge of the cliff – for now.
Resident pulls out his chainsaw: “I tried to do all I could”
Herbert Tobias, who also lives near the cemetery, said weeks of high water in 2020 and the force of the flow caused erosion and toppled trees along the river.
“There were bones here – lots of them,” Tobias said, gesturing to the water’s edge. “It was right after that flood.
WATCH: Graves in historic Black Mississippi cemetery washed away by Pearl River
A Harrisville, Mississippi resident speaks out in hopes of preventing more graves in Pine Ridge Cemetery from eroding into the Pearl River.
Barbara Gauntt, Mississippi Clarion Ledger
“Do you see those red bricks over there?” They are washed there. These bricks were a grave.
Tobias tried to do what he could to protect some graves.
It shows stumps of tall trees protruding from the ground at the edge of the cliff. Tobias said he cut down the trees to prevent them from falling naturally. If they hadn’t been cut they would have fallen and the roots would have dragged more soil and possibly human remains into the river.
Beyond that, nothing was done to protect the cemetery.
“I tried to do whatever I could,” said Tobias. “There’s no way of knowing what’s missing.”
“I just think it’s a sad thing to see graves going into the river and no one can do anything about it.”
“All we can do is pray that the river does not rise,” says the deacon of the church
Edward Bridges, a deacon at Pine Ridge Baptist Missionary Church, said without help the church is left helpless.
There is no cost estimate on what it would take to stabilize the bank. There are different methods used in different cases and some involve heavy and specialized equipment. But either way, the cost would be prohibitive, Bridges said, and the church lacks such authority.
Moving bodies can also be costly. The University of Mississippi Medical Center told the Clarion Ledger in 2014 that it paid $ 3,000 per body to have a cemetery moved from its campus due to construction. Again, Bridges said such an endeavor is not something the church itself can tackle.
Officials from Simpson County and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History have been contacted, Bridges said, but the church has been told neither can help.
“All we can do is pray that the river doesn’t rise,” said Bridges. “What else can we do?”
County, state and federal agencies say they can’t help: here’s why
The MDAH board of directors has the ability to certify a cemetery as abandoned. Such a designation allows the county where it is located to use public funds to repair and maintain it.
However, Michael Morris, director of public affairs for MDAH, said that because there have been burials in the past 50 years, the Pine Ridge Cemetery does not meet the criteria to be certified as abandoned.
John Kilpatrick, director of the Simpson County Emergency Management Agency, said he visited the cemetery and was concerned about what was going on.
It is impossible to have an exact idea of how many remains claimed by the river, he said, noting that epidemics may have forced more than one person to be buried in some of the graves. He also believes that some of the people buried are likely former slaves.
Despite this, he said the county was not allowed to take action because the cemetery was not labeled as abandoned by the state.
“It’s definitely a historic cemetery,” Kilpatrick said. “It’s a private cemetery, but it doesn’t fall under anything the county can do. I can’t find anything that can be done about it.”
Efforts to find an agency that could help protect the remaining graves led to a series of investigations by the Clarion Ledger.
As remains are washed away in a river, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality have been contacted. However, public affairs spokespersons said the agencies had no authority to deal with the issue.
At the federal level, the US Army Corps of Engineers in the Vicksburg district has been contacted. Public Affairs chief Sabrina Dalton explained that if a public building or road is threatened with erosion, the Corps could take action, but it could not in the case of a private cemetery, even if at least one veteran is buried there.
“Something has to be done … it’s going to fall apart”
Unless outside help is found, it appears that the graves, over time, will continue to disappear.
“Nobody likes it,” Tobias said. “It should be a bylaw against letting the bodies of the deceased float along the river. It makes no sense.”
Wheeler said the current situation “hurts my heart.”
The county, state, or federal government “has to come and look at this here and everything and do something about it if they care,” Wheeler said. “So someone has to speak up. Something has to be done because as long as we live and there is bad weather and this is all going to fall apart.”
The whole church, Wheeler adds, is disheartened.
“Many of them have relatives buried here,” he said. “It’s a sad thing, brother.”
Follow Brian Broom on Twitter: @Brianbroom.