California: Cemetery slur to be finally buried; County to replace headstones engraved with N-word

By Lien Hoang

Associated Press

PLACERVILLE, Calif. (AP) -- Supervisors in a Northern California county voted Tuesday to replace 36 gravestones that bear the N-word, giving the green light to state, county and community officials to design an alternative.

The graves hold the remains of pioneers of various races from a Gold Rush settlement called Negro Hill. The federal government moved the bodies from the mining town in 1954 to make way for a dam, and in the process, erected concrete headstones that said the settlers came from N-word Hill.

The vote by the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors was its most decisive action yet in unanimously agreeing to get rid of the gravestones. But it didn't directly hand over authority for the project to the California Prison Industry Authority, as Supervisor John Knight had originally proposed.

Knight, whose district includes El Dorado Hills, where the cemetery is located, had wanted a partnership between the county and the state agency, which runs work programs for inmates and offered its services free of charge.

Instead of adopting the Prison Industry Authority's proposal, supervisors invited outside input after a group of advocates seeking the headstones' removal said the black community should be behind any changes.

"It's embarrassing, and it's insulting to us for it to be there, and for you to take under consideration to let some prisoners fix it?" said Ralph White, one of the community members at the meeting. "We would love for them to help us, we would love for you to help us, anybody to help us. But we would like to be the leading agent, to show what we want."

White argued that if a similar slight had targeted Native Americans or Jewish people, those communities would have been consulted. He asked for the same consideration.

His group presented to supervisors a prototype of the headstones it wants as replacements. It said the polished gray granite of the sample headstone was a more appropriate homage to the 36 settlers than the worn, concrete slabs now in place.

Despite all the debate swirling around the cemetery, there has been little worry over who will foot the bill. Donors are stepping up to help fund the project, which could cost $400 per headstone.

Chuck Pattillo, general manager of the Prison Industry Authority, said he's already written a $500 check and lined up other donors. Knight also said that if necessary, he'll request the funds from the county.

Two years ago, AT&T committed more than $20,000 to update the gravesite after the company was approached by an Eagle Scout candidate, Josh Michael.

Josh, who is now 15, had worked out an entire blueprint, but the company and El Dorado County backed out at the last minute because Michael Harris, who leads the black advocacy group, threatened to bring in lawyers. In their vote Tuesday, the supervisors included a plan to write Josh a thank-you letter for his efforts.

They expect the new headstones to be in place by the end of summer, but left the question of what to do with the original markers for another day.

Some people, including a workforce coordinator at the prison agency, have requested a monument that includes one of the 36 old headstones and explains how the graves were wrongfully designated. Others have suggested sending them to museums and universities around the country for display.

Supervisor James Sweeney said he wants them gone for good.

"I don't want a statue in Washington, D.C., that says those idiots made a mistake," he said.

"I'm dead serious about that, because I have a love for this county that most of you people probably can't understand," he said. "But I don't want to be made a disgrace."

The county has been sensitive about the criticism generated by the gravestones and the racial epithet on them, but the federal government has taken the blame.

Negro Hill was formed after two black men struck gold there in 1849. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers relocated some of the deceased buried there to construct Folsom Dam in 1954, when the engineers allowed the N-word to be chiseled into the grave markers.

In 1961, the Corps ceded rights to the property to El Dorado County. This year, a half-century later, it responded to an Associated Press request by releasing documents from its archives that use the N-word exclusively. The Corps has apologized for the offensive term.

Published: Thu, May 26, 2011