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Gravestones to be removed; process unclear

HEAVY LOAD — Larry Ealem, of Stockton, member of Black African American Association and Mike Contreras, owner of Stockton Monuments, carry a sample replacement tombstone after the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday. Village Life photo by Shelly Thorene.
HEAVY LOAD — Larry Ealem, of Stockton, member of Black African American Association and Mike Contreras, owner of Stockton Monuments, carry a sample replacement tombstone after the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday. Village Life photo by Shelly Thorene.

HEAVY LOAD — Larry Ealem, of Stockton, member of Black African American Association and Mike Contreras, owner of Stockton Monuments, carry a sample replacement tombstone after the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday. Village Life photo by Shelly Thorene.

Racially offensive grave markers that have been in place since 1954 will be removed from the Mormon Island Relocation Cemetery at the west end of El Dorado County. Who will do the work, when it will be done and how the ugly chapter in history will be closed are questions yet to be answered.

The El Dorado County Board of Supervisors Tuesday voted unanimously to invite “all interested members of the region” to come together and create a proposal that could finally resolve the issue.

Building on Supervisor John Knight’s efforts to enlist the California Prison Industry Authority’s vocational programs to do some of the construction and preparation work, the board directed county staff to include non-governmental entities, especially the Negro Hill Burial Project, in discussions regarding details of a proposal.

About 25 members and supporters of that organization attended the board meeting and several addressed the supervisors objecting to not having been included in the conversations with the CalPIA.

Ralph White, president of the Stockton Black Leadership Council, particularly took issue at “never having the opportunity to meet with Mr. Knight,” and that the “penitentiary” would appear to get the credit for solving the problem. “All we’re asking is to be considered and to be the lead agent for this project,” White said on behalf of the Negro Hill Burial Project.

If it were an issue of “American Indian, Hebrew or Mexican” remains, White suggested that representatives of those races or cultures would have been invited to participate.

“We don’t want to have a plaque that says prisoners corrected it… All we want is something nice,” he said, adding that “we definitely want to work with Chuck (Pattillo, general manager of CalPIA) on this.”

White’s group brought a stone tablet with the legend, “Unknown, Moved from Negro Hill Cemetery, by U.S. Government – 1954″ manufactured by the Stockton Monument Co. as an example of a new marker. The 36 markers placed by the Army Corps of Engineers during the construction of Folsom Lake had used the offensive “N” word to designate the cemetery of origin for the 36 sets of remains that were relocated to the Mormon Island site.

Knight’s resolution included a “letter of gratitude” to Eagle Scout, Joshua Michael of El Dorado Hills, who laid the groundwork for correcting the injustice of the past when he proposed to remove and replace the old markers with new ones more than two years ago.

Saying that his son did not need credited for his effort, Greg Michael told the board that “all Josh would ask is that this wrong be corrected. Please fix this today.”

Whether or not to keep one of the original headstones as a historical piece on display at the cemetery was a point of contention and was not resolved Tuesday. White and Michael Harris, director of the Negro Hill Burial Project, strongly urged supervisors  to  “destroy” the offensive stones after sending a few to various academic institutions, the U.S. Attorney General and to President Obama. They said that history is well known and not necessary to keep on display, that it is an embarrassment to the county.

That, however, was not part of the supervisors’ resolution and will have to be addressed at future meetings of the “interested members of the region.”

 

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Posted by on May 25 2011.
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