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Sacramento Juneteenth Celebration: Negro Hills Burial Ground Project

by Khubaka, Michael Harris (blackagriculture [at]
Memorial Day Weekend 2009, during a wonderful backyard cook out with old friends and extended family watched President Obama acknowledge the 'Tomb of the Unknown Soldier' in Arlington Cemetery, Virginia. Questions about the nearby "Unknown Grave Markers" and the Negro Hill Burial Ground Project led to a hour long tour of Early Black Pioneers in the Gold Rush Era, including a grave site memorial. President Obama Administration may help us facilitate providing dignity and honor to create a worthy lasting memorial, change has come, yes we can.
Preparations for several Sacramento Valley Juneteenth Celebrations will discuss slavery in California and the Journey to Freedom by early California Black Pioneers. 1820 - 1865 California's transition from Spanish Territory, Mexican Republic and U.S. Statehood story is the legacy of the "Unknown Gravemarkers" and our Negro Hills Burial Ground Project.

The time for change is now.

Activist Seeks to Bury for Good Act of Racism Festering in Foothills
Posted on: Saturday, 18 February 2006

By Walter Yost, Sacramento Bee Reporter ~ Reprint

Like many of those buried at Mormon Island Relocation Cemetery, the three-dozen descendants of Negro Hill lie in graves marked "unknown." But unlike the rest, their simple gravestones bear an inscription, including a racial epithet, that recall the days of segregation, lynchings and other degradations of African Americans.

The racist grave markers roil the blood of Ray Parr, an African American veteran of the Korean War. The 76-year-old Parr said he was angry, recalling the first time he saw the markers, which read: "Unknown. Moved from (racial epithet) Hill by U.S. Government 1954.""What shook me up is that the U.S. government did this," Parr said. "It never should have been done that way." If Parr, and others involved in the Negro Hill Burial Ground Project, have their way, the cemetery's historical markers will be changed "to reflect proper dignity and respect for the pioneers of Negro Hill and the surrounding pioneer communities," said Michael Harris, project director.

Harris is mustering support for the project during the eighth annual California Black History Month. On Feb. 25 a reception honoring black pioneers will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Folsom History Museum, 823 Sutter St. Like most people in Sacramento, Harris knew little about the Mormon Island Relocation Cemetery until Sue Silver, president of the El Dorado County Pioneer Cemeteries Commission, gave him a tour. "I didn't understand the significance of the cemetery," said Harris, a student of African American history and culture.

Operated by El Dorado County since the mid-'50s, the cemetery is tucked away on a dead end street along the Folsom/El Dorado Hills border. It was created by the Army Corps of Engineers as a repository for eight small burial grounds inundated in the 1950s after the construction of Folsom Dam. Among those relocated to the 5-acre site were descendants of former gold mining communities such as Mormon Island, Condemned Bar, Salmon Falls and Negro Hill.

Harris said Negro Hill was founded in 1848 along the American River, east of Leidesdorff Ranch, near today's city of Folsom. By 1853, Harris said, a multiethnic community of over 1,200 people lived in Negro Hill, bolstered by an influx of free people of African ancestry to California. However, by 1854, Harris said, portions of the community had deteriorated and state laws prohibiting blacks from public education, voting, testifying in court and homesteading land helped to destroy Negro Hill's early promise. Eventually, Harris said, residents left Negro Hill for more hospitable environs as far away as British Columbia.

The physical remains of Negro Hill and neighboring communities now lie at the bottom of Folsom Lake. The burial project, of which Harris is director, seeks answers to questions including: What were the origins of the individuals buried in Negro Hill Cemetery, what was the quality of life in the surrounding Negro Hill community, and how did "Negro" in the pioneer town's name change to a racial epithet.

Harris attributes the renaming of Negro Hill on the gravestones to the racial bigotry of the Jim Crow era. "These were good old boys from the South," he said of federal officials who oversaw the reburials at Mormon Island Relocation Cemetery in the 1950s. Steve Beck, archivist at Sutter's Fort State Historic Park, said he doesn't know how the decision was made to inscribe the markers, but he said "historically the community was referred to as Negro Hill."

In reading through back issues of the Folsom Telegraph newspaper, Silver, state coordinator of California Saving Graves, said the community was always referred to as Negro Hill, "until about the 1920s or so.""The federal government only used what the locals called it at the time when they put those markers on the relocated graves," Silver wrote in an e-mail. Regarding the origins of the markers, an Army Corps of Engineers official referred questions to Melinda Peak, an El Dorado Hills historian and archaeologist who has done consulting work for the agency. Peak said many California place name books, such as Erwin Gudde's "California Gold Camps," refer to the pioneer community under both names. However, Peak said a 1944 U.S. Geological Survey topographical map refers to the community by the racial epithet and is likely the reference source used by the Corps of Engineers.

Barely three years after the grave markers were installed, a ceremony was held to dedicate state historical markers commemorating the pioneer towns of "Mormon Island, Negro Hill, Salmon Falls and Condemned Bar." The marker dedicated to Negro Hill has since disappeared. Beck said he is supportive of Harris' goal to raise awareness of the role African Americans played in the state's early history. "I think it's important that people recognize the fact there were people of African American ancestry in large numbers," he said.

P.J. Patton, a cemetery expert with El Dorado County, said that if someone came to the county with a proposal to change the grave marker inscriptions to Negro Hill, "I don't see why we wouldn't entertain it." Among those working with Harris on the burial project is Oshmin Oden, a Bay Area funeral arranger. Oden said he first became aware of the burial marker inscriptions while looking through a U.S. cemetery guide. "I was just shocked," said Oden, who is helping lobby state legislators and other citizens to support the Negro Hill Burial Ground Project.

Oden said that if the state of Georgia can change its flag, removing the Confederate battle emblem, there's no reason California can't change the burial markers. Like Harris, Oden also wants to see a memorial built at the relocation cemetery honoring all of those with grave markers inscribed "unknown.""All people, not just blacks, should know everyone who contributed to this wonderful state," he said.

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by Anthony Belli (4x4dawg [at]

While researching Negro Hill(s) for my new book, History of El Dorado County, I found this post and admit I was unaware that our Gov't opted to use the racial epitaph over the communities historical name of Negro Hill. While I do support the effort to correct these historically significant markers I do so to correct the historical ERROR that was made, not because the term today is clearly very offensive. I have often pondered this issue as it presents itself to the standards of today. Let me explain, N_____R Hill is a known geological location and was a Gold Rush mining camp located north of Placerville. Negro Hill(s) is also a known geological location and was a Gold Rush mining camp located 17.9 miles west of Placerville. Both sites are located in El Dorado County.

The racial epitaph was a common place name used in the Gold Rush at sites that African Americans usually founded, or strongly influenced. Needless to say how significant this is to consider when understanding and preserving California's history. This problem is repeated throughout the state's place-names, and across the U.S. To cloud the issue further consider the Hangtown Story.

First known as Dry Diggings, present-day Placerville in 1849 was called Hangtown. Yes the reason it took on that name was the impromptu hangings of three gentlemen in the hay-yard at Elsner's Saloon in January 1849. But the reason the name likely stuck was because mining camps throughout the Mother Lode had adopted the same name. Auburn was originally North Dry Diggings, for example. So those at Dry Diggings were already talking about a new name to distinguish themselves from all the others... many in the same county even. It was important for receiving mail and express.

Since the racial epitaph was used throughout the Mother Lode / USA if we simply default to using "Negro" how will we as historians, writers, map makers, and living descendants determine if G-G-Grandfather held a mining claim, owned a mine, purchased land, founded a town, or had something to do with the history of someplace called Negro Bar or N_____R Bar? Both located in California?

Next question... If we change this racial epitaph which clearly was regarded as "appropriate" by the white folks running the show in the 19th century to the default term, "Negro," do we also re-name other places that were named by the young, white, male culture of the Gold Rush which we find offensive today? Some examples from El Dorado County alone are... Murderer's Bar, Hangtown, Whorehouse Gulch, and so on. This is an important question for anyone doing genealogy, cemetery, historical, and cartography work.

Its a difficult question.
by michael
the question in 1848, 1948 and 2011 remains, do we have one standard for humanity in the United States of America?

Clearly your research is viewed from the prism of entitlement and primary source documentation is not paramount.

How many folks that attended Negro Hill School have you interviewed? How many folks lived on Negro Hill Road when the name was changed? What was the economic impact of Negro Hill on the surrounding "Gold Rush Mining District?"

In 2011, the idea of providing dignity and honor to early California Black Pioneers while providing a worthy lasting memorial is beyond the basic human capacity to afford to people of African descent, without a elevated methodology.
by Anthony Belli
Greetings Michael,

You are absolutely correct and I concur that these markers must be corrected. BTW I have written about Negro Hill history as well as many black pioneers who came to El Dorado County during the Gold Rush. Please tell me how I, as a researcher can answer the question of where did my G-G Great grandfather have a mining claim, a homestead, business, etc. in the camp or town of ______.

Today I can clearly distinguish the location of Negro Hill from N____R Hill because they have different names as was intended. If every place name defaults to the standard of "Negro" it will create confusion at best, and I do not want to provide inaccurate or "best guess" answers to descendants, historians, writers, etc.

White Americans were the dominate culture of the Northern Mines during the Gold Rush and they left us in 2011 a history, maps, diaries, journals, and letters that are full of racial titles for place names. If we change these place names today to a "default" title then there must be someway to preserve these changes for future generations. Example... If we change all Chinese place names using the word "Coolie," to the default of "Chinese" instead, then how could you identify where your relatives are buried at Coolie Hill from Chinese Hill when both place names have existed for 150+ years and are located miles apart in the same county?

Anthony M. Belli
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