When Folsom Lake was under construction in 1954, the United States government dug up nine old, pioneer-era cemeteries and relocated the remains to Mormon Island Relocation Cemetery at the far western end of El Dorado County.
Headstones were fashioned for those remains, of which 36 bear the legend:
“Unknown, Moved from Nigger Hill Cemetery by U.S. Government — 1954.”
In fact, there was no such place as “Nigger Hill Cemetery” and no such place as “Nigger Hill,” according to Michael Harris, director of the Negro Hill Burial Project. Harris spoke at the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors meeting last week. For the past 10 years, he said he has been working to correct both the language and the history associated with the issue.
“The El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce and regional business interests are asked to support our request of El Dorado County Board of Supervisors to support the removal of the word ‘Nigger’ from the 36 grave markers that our U.S. Government placed in the care of El Dorado County,” reads a prepared statement from Harris and Ralph White, president of the Stockton Black Leadership Council.
White had addressed the board prior to Harris’s presentation reiterating that there never was any place called “Nigger Town or Nigger Hill” and saying that “dark-skinned people are very offended by those terms.”
“We ask that this body remove the name ‘Nigger’ from those headstones of ‘Unknown Nigger’, and we’d like a response within 30 to 60 days,” White concluded his remarks.
Harris briefly described the history of a community that he said was widely known and officially designated as Negro Hill. Between 1848 and 1853, according to the “History of El Dorado County, California,” the area, generally at the confluence of the South and Middle forks of the American River, was alternately referred to as Negro Hill, Little Negro Hill, Big Negro Hill and Negro Hills.
Prior to 1954, when the Army Corps of Engineers employed the offensive term, there was only one other reference to “Nigger Hill,” and that was in a U.S. Government Land Map from 1860, staff writer Wendy Schultz noted in a 2006 Mountain Democrat story.
In its heyday, Negro Hill boasted a diverse population of as many as 1,200 miners, merchants, farmers and restaurant and boarding house operators. Many of the miners and business owners were free black men from northeastern states and were described as successful both at business and at mining.
The statement from Harris and White notes, “Many leaders were deeply religious abolitionists from Massachusetts who were concerned with civic responsibility, equal opportunity and freedom.”
Harris suggested that the county needs to make a case to present to the federal government and pointed out that, “for 57 years it’s been under the jurisdiction of El Dorado County, and we’d like to find just one person we can work with. I hope we can resolve this without getting lawyers involved.”
Supervisor John Knight advised Harris to contact county cemetery administrator Bonnie Wurm when he has “a plan to change” the grave markers and properly designate that part of the cemetery.
The administration of cemeteries is a division of the El Dorado County Department of Transportation. However, DOT director Jim Ware’s response to an e-mail from the Mountain Democrat Wednesday morning did little to clarify the next steps in addressing the issue.
“I don’t know who is responsible, if anyone. The county didn’t relocate the graves or order/place the markers. I don’t have any funding to undertake the work to change the markers if that is what the end result is.
“I believe that the board asked him (Michael Harris) to submit a plan to us for our review. The plan would need to include a funding source. If that happens, we’ll probably need to get with someone at Folsom Dam, (USBR or COE), and get them to take the lead on getting any necessary approvals and determine who should oversee the project,” Ware wrote.
Mike Applegarth of the Chief Administrative Office said, “Who’s responsible is the golden question. The county could take the lead if there was agreement by all interested parties as to what is the solution.”
And while the county maintains the cemetery and the road to the cemetery, “It’s not clear we have the right to alter historical markers. There are significant historical and cultural issues involved in changing grave sites, and they add additional layers of complication to it,” Applegarth said.
Michael Harris, asked if he felt he’d gotten some help from the county Tuesday, qualified the answer as both yes and no.
“What we want is a resolution from the county to the state or federal government in support of this effort,” Harris said in a phone interview Wednesday.
“The U.S. government had the jurisdiction. El Dorado County didn’t do it and had no say on where they relocated those graves.”
Harris further noted that the idea now is “to replace them with fresh marble or something like it and replace the word nigger with negro. Getting the authority to make the change is the problem. But I think we’re in good shape now getting people to the table.”
Knight responded to an e-mail Wednesday, saying that it is currently unclear to him who has authority or jurisdiction to alter the grave markers. He also noted that he has calls in to Congressmen Dan Lungren’s and Tom McClintock’s offices and hoped to know more by next week.
“I’d like to see how we can resolve this at the county level without running afoul of the federal government,” Knight concluded.