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Birney Imes: Celebrating Emancipation Day


Birney Imes



Thursday afternoon son John and I attended the Eighth of May observance at Historic Sandfield Cemetery. There Chuck Yarborough and his Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science students presented a Tales-from-the-Crypt-style performance, complete with gospel music and visitations by the African American luminaries buried there. 


Yarborough, building on the foundation laid by his mentor and colleague, the late Carl Butler, has kept the extremely popular cemetery reenactment going. Fortunately for Columbus, Yarborough has an intense interest in local history. He has broadened the scope of Tales to include the less prominent inhabitants of Friendship Cemetery, and his is the only significant research I know of on local black history. Most of the subjects of that research are buried in "Historic Sandfield Cemetery," bordered on the east by South 25th Street. 


Yarborough doesn't think anyone has been buried in the "historic" cemetery since the 50s. Those earlier internments include William Issac Mitchell and J.M. Coleman, two leaders for whom schools were named. The part of the cemetery east of 25th Street is still used. City Councilman Joe Edwards, a longtime resident of Sandfield, is buried there. 


Historic Sandfield Cemetery is in a sad state. Though the city keeps the grass trimmed, most of the gravestones have been knocked over, and there are large expanses of open ground, which contain unmarked graves. Existing burial records can be seen on the Lowndes County Mississippi Genealogy website. 


For a civic-minded organization looking for a community service project, the restoration of Historic Sandfield Cemetery would be a noble, not to mention challenging, undertaking. 


In his greeting before Thursday's event Yarborough expressed a sentiment repeated by his students in their performance: "We're not talking about black history. We're not talking about white history. We're talking about our history." 


Of course, he is correct. Our history -- that of black and white Mississippians -- is one we all share, for better or worse. It is our history. 


As we were leaving the cemetery John mused, "It doesn't seem that white people get involved with Black History Month." 


"No, not really," I said. 


Maybe it's the "black" part of it that causes whites to feel it doesn't belong to them; maybe it's our natural discomfort with the unfamiliar. I've always been perplexed, even disappointed, by the slim white participation in the excellent Dream 365 event.  


If we are to overcome this divide we need to find a way to embrace and value our diversity, which is, after all, one of the defining qualities of this American experiment.  


Recently we published an editorial about the music documentary "Muscle Shoals" noting how black and white musicians worked together to create a trove of iconic American music. Race was never an issue -- even at the height of the civil rights struggle -- it was all about the music. The result is there to see, or rather to hear. 


The Eighth of May is the local equivalent of Juneteenth. May 8, 1865, is the day the Union soldiers bearing news of emancipation arrived here.  


"This will be a day long remembered in Columbus," wrote Cyrus Green, a Quaker from Indiana who was teaching at the Freedman's Bureau School (located where Union Academy would be built).  


Juneteenth refers to June 19, 1865, the day the news via Union soldiers reached Galveston, Texas. Juneteenth or Emancipation Day is officially sanctioned in 42 states, Mississippi not being one of them. Yet, our state observes Confederate Memorial Day. 


How much better it would be if we, as a community, could celebrate Emancipation Day and view it as a time we all achieved a measure of freedom.  



Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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