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Radar, records at old cemetery uncover Hattiesburg’s past

March 22, 2019

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) — An old abandoned cemetery in east Hattiesburg is revealing hints about the history of the city thanks to the work of University of Southern Mississippi anthropology students who have carefully examined what little is left there.

The surprises they found resurrected the cemetery as a place of significance for Hattiesburg. Their discoveries include:

— The resting place of the city’s first mayor.

— Information about his family members.

— “And ultimately, it’s the human part of it,” said student Andrew Patterson. “It’s someone’s final resting place.” You hate to see a cemetery abandoned. If that was my ancestors’ final resting place, I would want it cared for.”

WHAT IS THE EAST EIGHTH STREET CEMETERY?

The cemetery had been little noticed until the 1990s, when the city began maintaining it, but doing not much else.

“It was stuck back there, by the railroad,” said Andy Parker, Hattiesburg’s general manager of cemeteries and urban forestry. “It’s a small, little cemetery.

“It takes about 15 minutes to pick up the litter, rake a couple leaves and then we’re gone again.”

Parker said the cemetery, off Main Street, dated back to the late 1800s.

“There might be eight graves there — three or four stones,” he said. “It’s a really interesting cemetery to be off the beaten path back there.”

HOW DID SOUTHERN MISS GET INVOLVED?

The anthropology students were looking for a project and had volunteered to help with another rundown cemetery in the city — Mount Olive. But that cemetery was too wet and overgrown to research.

Parker mentioned East Eighth Street Cemetery, and the students were game.

WHO WAS BURIED THERE?

“We went out to (East Eighth Street) cemetery,” said anthropology professor Marie Danforth. “It was covered in tiny trees and brush.

“There were lots of roots. There were three gravestones that you could see that were put up by the city. They didn’t know if there were graves there or not.”

The headstones belonged to prominent Hattiesburg citizens:

— Sarah Jones (1838-1888)

— Victor Jones (died 1915)

— Leon Jones (no dates)

The latter two were noted as veterans of the Spanish-American War.

Perhaps most intriguing, however, was what appeared to be a large grave, set apart from the other stones, and outlined by an 8-inch-high brick border.

HEADSTONES OF A MOTHER, SONS

This fall, Danforth and her students began to map the cemetery as well as look into who might be interred there. An investigation into the census records for the city indicated the three headstones belonged to a mother and her sons.

Other records indicated O.H.P. (Oliver Hazard Perry) Jones — the first mayor of Hattiesburg — from 1884-85 — likely had been buried in the large grave. His wife, Mary Ann Burkett Jones, was also interred in the cemetery.

O.H.P. and Mary Jones were moved to Oaklawn Cemetery in 1962. Sarah Jones and her sons are believed still to be at the East Eighth Street Cemetery. They were the family of O.H.P. Jones’ brother, William Jones.

“We didn’t know this was where the first mayor of the city was buried,” Danforth said. “These are things you learn about the city from doing this kind of work.”

Danforth also learned the family probably lived in a house on Jones Street. All that is left of that house now is a set of steps leading to nowhere.

WHO ELSE WAS BURIED THERE?

Armed with measuring tapes, shovels, probes and trowels, the students made a further map of the grounds in November. They were particularly interested in a number of depressions in two north-south rows.

“The ground looked like it had two rows of graves,” Danforth said. “We dug down real shallow and found the gravestone of the brother, W.E. (William) Jones.”

Student Amy Hair was one of those who found the gravestone.

“When we found it, it was broken and underneath the soil,” she said. “We could see a bit of the letters and we realized — this is what we’ve been looking for — what it was we were hoping we would find.”

It’s believed W.E. Jones was the first person buried in the cemetery — around 1885.

GROUND-PENETRATING RADAR USED

In mid-December, more work was done with ground-penetrating radar, which can detect differences in sub-surface texture, such as the presence of a coffin. But no more graves were found.

The students have not given up their cemetery work. Their next project is scheduled to be Mount Olive Cemetery.

“It just stays so wet,” Parker said. “But if we can get some sunshine in there this spring, and get the debris out, they can do some research.

“That would give use some more information to put in our catalog, so if somebody calls they could find a loved one or a family member.”

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Information from: The Hattiesburg American, http://www.hattiesburgamerican.com