U.S. agency admits role in racial slur on old grave markers

Published: Wednesday, May. 4, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011 - 7:51 am

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released documents Tuesday acknowledging it was responsible for using a racially inflammatory version of the name Negro Hill when that town's cemetery was moved to El Dorado Hills to make way for Folsom Lake in 1954.

Negro Hill's old cemetery – on the land between forks of the American River – was one of several moved when Folsom Dam was built.

Instead of saying Negro Hill, though, markers in the new Mormon Island Cemetery, to which bodies were taken, instead use a word too raw to use in the newspaper.

They say the bodies were moved from (N-word) Hill.

The markers don't refer to those buried there – who were most likely of various races – but only to the town's name.

"We don't know why, when in so many other instances the cemetery was called Negro Hill, the new gravestones and our records use the more offensive word," wrote Corps Lt. Col. Andrew B. Kiger, in an apologetic memo accompanying the released documents.

The documents, released after a formal public records request by the Associated Press, include photos, maps, proposals, contracts and reports, all of which refer to the town cemetery using the N-word.

The community was founded as Negro Hill in 1848 by at least one settler of African descent.

Most historical maps refer to it as Negro Hill, but at least two use the offensive name.

One is a 1944 U.S. Geological Survey map, showing Folsom as just a tiny grid, and indicating (N-word) Hill School. That may be what the Corps of Engineers used.

El Dorado County has begun a process to fix the markers while acknowledging the racist history that made the fix necessary.

The County's Cemetery Administration has developed a tentative proposal to replace the markers with the correct town name, and leave one at the cemetery along with an explanation of the injustice and its correction.

"We're committed to working on a solution that's acceptable to everybody," said Mike Applegarth, a spokesman for the county, which took title for the cemetery from the Corps in 1961.

That includes Michael Harris, leader of the Negro Hill Burial Ground Project, who has campaigned to fix the markers.

"It sounds like a reasonable solution," Harris said Tuesday but added he is reserving judgment.

"I need to see it in writing," he said. "I got to run it by some people."

It's not clear why the Corps used the offensive name when others at the same time, including The Bee, used only Negro Hill.

"We can only say with certainty that it is reflective of a shameful period in American history when racial intolerance was commonplace," Kiger wrote.

Racism persists, Harris said, citing the attacks on President Barack Obama's origins.

"There's still people in El Dorado County who don't want to recognize that prior to El Dorado Hills there was a Negro Hill," he said.

While the Corps no longer has any legal ability to officially correct the markers, individuals within the organization have expressed interest in volunteering to help make amends, Corps officials said.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Carlos Alcalá

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