PASCAGOULA, Miss. (AP) - Herman Paul Magee was only 18 when he was killed in Quang Nam Province, Vietnam, in 1968.
On the day after Thanksgiving, several of his classmates from Pascagoula’s Carver High School gathered at Gabriel Cemetery to pay tribute to their friend on his 71st birthday.
They remembered Magee, nicknamed Bubba, as friendly, family-oriented, a great math student, and dedicated to his mother.
“Bubba was one of those that always had a smile on his face,” said Le Roy Woodson, president of their high school class. “We’re very proud that God sent Bubba to us. We just enjoyed him for the short time he was with us.”
Magee, who won the Purple Heart, is one of 57 veterans buried at the historic African American cemetery, where the oldest identified grave dates to 1902. The service held for him on Nov. 27th was part of a larger effort by the Gabriel Cemetery Association to restore the cemetery and document and celebrate the stories of the generations of Black Jackson County residents buried there.
Today, similar work is ongoing at Black cemeteries across the South. In many communities, family members moved away, and white-controlled local governments weren’t interested in maintaining the cemeteries. Decades of official neglect have left graves overgrown and records lost or destroyed.
Volunteers like the members of the Gabriel Cemetery Association spend weekends and evenings clearing away branches and mending fences. Sometimes, they have to ask kids to stop using the cemetery to play Pokemon Go, or tell neighbors that no, they can’t walk their dogs here.
Irma Doss, 72, one of Magee’s classmates, is also secretary for the Association. Her father, a World War II veteran, is buried there, as are her mother and brother. But she volunteers for everyone buried at Gabriel.
“There’s no one else to care for their graves now,” she said. “It needs care. I feel like it’s part of- if it was my family, I would want someone to do that for them.”
A DISTINGUISHED HISTORY
Though the oldest identified grave at Gabriel is marked 1902, the cemetery itself may be older. Project director Anne’ McMillion said the association’s records include 11 pages of names of people who were buried in the cemetery, but whose graves are now unmarked and can’t be identified.
The cemetery has born witness to more than a century of Black life in Pascagoula. At least two victims of the 1918 Spanish Influenza were buried there, according to records published in the Journal of the Jackson County Genealogical Society: Nathern Bolden, 72, in 1918, and Charlotte Edwards, 47, in 1919.
Almost 50 years later, the cemetery was the subject of a legal dispute that went all the way to the Mississippi Supreme Court. A white family was placing their property on part of the land they claimed the cemetery didn’t actually own, because it wasn’t in use as burial plots. The cemetery association sued.
The high court sided with Gabriel Cemetery Association. Sometimes “children played in the oak trees” at the cemetery, or “somebody planted a garden over there,” but that didn’t mean the association was relinquishing ownership of the land.
“The Cemetery is almost like a park sometimes,” a lower court concluded. “Its (sic) public and everybody goes into it and around it but that doesn’t mean they are claiming the land.”
The year after the ruling, Magee was buried at Gabriel. So was Thomas Hardy, another Carver High classmate killed in Vietnam. Both men are on the Wall of Faces established by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.
For their classmates at Carver - the high school for Black students in Pascagoula before integration - the loss of two young men in such quick succession was tragic. Sixty years on, it still feels horribly unfair to Harry Holbert, vice president of the association.
Holbert served in Thailand during the war.
“The Vietnam War was the war for poor people,” he said. “Black and brown and white.”
Wealthy young men, he pointed out, were able to evade the draft or flee to Canada.
“If we’re poor, we didn’t run,” he said. “We had nowhere to run to.”
Mississippi’s Black servicemen returned home from Vietnam to a state still resisting integration and the civil rights movement.
Among the civil rights activists buried at Gabriel are Grace and Hansel Travillion. Hansel, a veteran of World War II, established a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Pascagoula for Black veterans. Grace, a lifelong member of the NAACP, advocated for Pascagoula to switch from an at-large city council to a ward system, so that a Black representative could win office.
The Gabriel Cemetery Association is hoping to preserve the memory of people like the Travillions.
“Conservation of learning history is very important because it’s a reflection of identity,” McMillion said. “In order to have a sense of place, of purpose, you need to know the history of who you are, where you come from.”
RESTORING CEMETERIES ACROSS THE SOUTH
There is no official or comprehensive list of historic Black cemeteries across the South. A bill introduced in the U.S. Senate in 2019 would require the National Park Service to create a network of the cemeteries and help them with preservation, but it didn’t make it to a vote.
Until then, communities take on cemetery preservation largely on their own. The challenges are daunting. In order to match the names in the records to unmarked plots in the cemetery, the association would have to track down funeral homes to see if they have a record matching name to plot, or family members to ask if they remember the burial location.
One project McMillion is familiar with is at Mobile’s historic Oaklawn Cemetery in Alabama, where Tuskeegee Airmen and Buffalo Soldiers are among the thousands of African Americans interred.
Fran Barber, vice president and secretary of the Veterans Memorial Recovery Team at Oaklawn, started volunteering at the cemetery three years ago, focusing on locating the graves of veterans. The cemetery had been neglected for 30 years.
“At that time it was like a forest,” she said. “You couldn’t see 20 feet because of the overgrowth.”
So far, she said, the volunteers have located the graves of 820 veterans.
Much of the cemetery’s history remains unknown. While the official estimate of the number of people buried at Oaklawn is 10,000, Barber said she and other volunteers have surveyed just eight of the cemetery’s 22 acres and already located 8,000 graves.
The association is now in the process of applying for the cemetery to join the National Register of Historic Places.
Holbert envisions heritage day celebrations where young people can come and learn about their community’s history.
“You can walk through the cemetery, say, ‘This is uncle so and so, he married so and so,’” Holbert said, gesturing at headstones. “And teach about the history.”
Standing at Magee’s grave, Holbert recalled how he had heard that Magee had re-enlisted before his death so that he could use the bonus to move his mother out of public housing.
McMillion, a generation younger than Magee and his classmates, read the poem “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” to the gathered crowd.
“Do not stand at my grave and cry,” she read. “I am not there; I did not die.”
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