EL DORADO HILLS (CBS / AP) — Time has weathered the 36 concrete gravestones in a dusty, half-century-old cemetery tucked away in a corner of California’s former gold fields. Time has not erased, however, the bigotry of a bygone era carved into the markers.
The dead, both black and white, had been moved from a Gold Rush-era hamlet known as Negro Hill in the 1950s to make way for a reservoir.
The problem is the way the markers continue to identify them almost 60 years later: “Unknown. Moved from N—-r Hill Cemetery by U.S. Government – 1954.”
Now a handful of activists are trying to get the markers replaced with ones bearing what they say was the original name, Negro Hill.
“Telling the accurate story of what happened and putting the positive correction is something that this region has a responsibility to do,” activist Michael Harris said.
The trouble is getting someone to take responsibility for fixing an error committed during an era when the N-word was commonly used. The Army Corps of Engineers, which had the graves relocated, says it handed over control of the gravesite to El Dorado County. The county says it welcomes a solution from the Corps.
On Thursday, a group that oversees work projects for state prison inmates stepped in with an offer to update the gravestones. Chuck Pattillo, general manager of the California Prison Industry Authority, said the inmates can finish the work in two days, free of charge. He just needs approval from El Dorado County.
He also called the Corps, which referred him to El Dorado. The county did not immediately return a call requesting comment.
At a meeting last week, the county’s board invited Harris to propose a fix, but made no promises.
“If the United States government is portraying something inaccurately, I’m very upset about it,” board chairman Ray Nutting told Harris.
The origin of the name “Negro Hill” can be traced back to California’s colorful and hectic founding as a state.
People from all over the world poured in during the Gold Rush with dreams of striking it rich. Where they discovered gold, the site typically was named after the race, religion or other social group of those who found it first and settled there. That’s why the Sierra Nevada foothills are filled with names like China Camp, Dutch Flat or Chili Bar (after Chilean miners).
Two black men—one a Methodist preacher—struck gold in 1849 and the area was called Negro Hill.
The town site quickly developed into a full-service community of 1,200 people, complete with schools and shops serving the region’s growing number of farms.
As it developed, there were moments of racial unrest. In 1852, a black man accused of stealing a gold nugget was lynched. Three years later, a group of drunken whites attacked the black part of town, leaving one person dead. They were acquitted.
In the early 1950s, the Corps was planning a dam that would create Folsom Lake, part of California’s extensive waterworks of reservoirs, canals and aqueducts.
To make way for the reservoir, the agency hired a contractor to relocate 13 cemeteries and burial sites in 1954. In 1961, it transferred rights over Mormon Island Relocation Cemetery to the county.
Today, the five-acre plot sits among barns and small horse ranches, nearly 30 miles northeast of Sacramento.
The Corps said it does not know how the N-word ended up on the grave markers.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by The Associated Press, the agency released contracts and maps that referred to the town site exclusively with the N-word.
“Regardless of the context, we are deeply ashamed and regretful to find this word in our records, and for having perpetuated a racist, hateful word that has no place in public discourse,” Lt. Col. Andrew B. Kiger, the commander of the Corps’ Sacramento District, wrote in a response to the AP’s records request.
According to the documents, none of the 36 graves had markers when they were buried between 1850 and 1870. The practice at the time, and what the Corps likely did, was to poke through the ground for possible corpses. One was a baby, another a child. Most graves contained little more than a few bones and, occasionally, pieces of wood and clothing.
Many, including the Corps, have assumed all the graves belonged to black pioneers. In fact, searches of newspaper archives and obituaries showed that most of the relocated graves belonged to whites who had moved to Negro Hill as it developed, said Susan Mickus, a district representative for the county’s Cemetery Advisory Committee.
But Ralph White doesn’t care about the settlers’ race. The president of the Stockton Black Leadership Council joined Harris in making a presentation to the county board and said no one would want that slur on his or her grave.
“It might be an act of God or an act of Satan,” White said after the meeting, “but it will be removed.”