Thirty-six racially offensive gravestones have been removed and will be replaced by new stones at Mormon Island Relocation Cemetery in El Dorado Hills.
El Dorado County Chief Administrative Officer Terri Daly signed an agreement with the California Prison Industry Authority June 8, under which inmates will provide both skilled and unskilled labor for the project. CALPIA will first draw up a formal proposal, submit it to the public for comment on its website for five days, then resubmit it to the CAO’s office for approval.
Controversy has surrounded the issue for decades but came to a head when Michael Harris, director of the Negro Hill Burial Ground Project and regional African-American activists, confronted the Board of Supervisors during a meeting earlier this year.
As of June 6, CALPIA’s website has noted that the agency’s tentative proposal has been amended and now “credits the Negro Hill Burial Ground Project with the grave marker design.” The new stones are quite similar but they now read, “Unknown, Moved from Negro Hill Cemetery by U.S. Government – 1954.”
The issue began in 1954 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dug up nine small cemeteries to make way for the construction of Folsom Lake. Remains of the decedents were transferred to “relocation cemeteries” in the surrounding area, and the Corps erected gravestone markers.
The Corps had the markers inscribed with the words, “Unknown – Removed from Nigger Hill Cemetery by U.S. Government – 1954.”
There was a Gold Rush community called Negro Hill, generally located in Placer County along the American River. Remains from its cemetery are the ones that were moved to the relocation cemetery and came under El Dorado County’s jurisdiction in 1961.
Officials with the Army Corps of Engineers have recently been contacted by various media. Dede Cordell, spokeswoman for the Sacramento district, was quoted in a New York Times article last week.
“The overwhelming reaction was one of shock and embarrassment. There was a lot of ‘Oh, my gosh, how did this happen?’ and ‘How can we fix it?’ ”
Who is actually responsible and what public entity can afford to solve the problem have been ongoing issues of debate.
Apparently, relatively few local residents were even aware of the cemetery and fewer still knew of the 36 offending headstones. County District 1 Supervisor John Knight has said he only heard about it in the past year or so. However, Knight became the county’s point-man for getting rid of the original markers and finding a way to replace them with appropriately inscribed stones.
Although Harris and his group have sought to correct the offense since 1998, El Dorado County officials’ awareness was primarily the result of a local teenager’s effort to replace the stones for his Eagle Scout project. Josh Michael, now 15, presented a proposal both to the Board of Supervisors and Folsom city officials back in 2009. He researched the matter, addressed classes at the local college and arranged for funding through a grant from AT&T. The project eventually fell through, but CALPIA and county supervisors drafted a resolution of gratitude to the young man as part of the overall proposal.
The replacement work is likely to begin after July 1 and the terms of the agreement run through Sept. 30, 2011, according to the CALPIA website. No public funds are to be used and materials will be paid for by public donations.
The workers are participants in CALPIA’s Career Technical Program and are in partnership with the Carpenter’s Union Local 46 and the Laborer’s Union Local 185. The program is designed to “prepare inmates for release by instructing them in real-world construction skills,” the agreement reads.
The original stones have been moved to a county storage facility and are likely to be destroyed, according to Mike Applegarth, acting director of the county’s Air Quality Control division and the CAO’s project analyst.
Michael Harris of the Negro Hill Burial Ground Project was not available for comment on this issue as of press time Thursday.