The phrase “relocation camp” brings to mind endless rows of dusty barracks in a stark desert landscape, Japanese-Americans sent far away against their will, and blatant racism perpetrated by the U.S. government. What, then, does a relocation cemetery bring to mind?
Mormon Island Relocation Cemetery is located on a small, barren patch of dry land that appears to be in the middle of nowhere. Suburbia is only a five-minute drive away, but you’d never know that if you were standing in this graveyard of the dispossessed.
The cemetery was created in 1954 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as a final, really-final-this-time resting place for the remains found in eight small cemeteries which were destroyed in the creation of Folsom Lake and Folsom Dam. In the ensuing years several individual graves as well as the residents of Prairie City Cemetery were also reinterred at the relocation cemetery.
The eight original cemeteries that were transferred to the relocation cemetery were from the communities of Condemned Bar, Dolton’s Bar, Salmon Falls, Mormon Island, Carrollton Bar, Negro Hill, McDowell’s Hill and Natural Dam. These towns were named after identifying features of the area or the ethnic groups who first settled there. You didn’t have to be a follower of Joseph Smith to live at Mormon Island, you didn’t have to be black to live on Negro Hill, and you didn’t have to be doomed to reside at Condemned Bar. The names are a colorful reminder of those rollicking gold rush days.
While there’s nothing wrong with relocating graves – it’s far better than abandoning them to the ravages of development – you wouldn’t expect to find that nasty old blatant racism rearing its ugly head here in this quiet little square of dirt. But it does. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers carefully brought along the existing headstones from the graves that had them, and it stamped out simple concrete markers for those that didn’t. The unknowns of seven of the cemeteries got unpretentious headstones that correctly identified their original resting places. Guess which unknowns got something else entirely.
The remains of nearly three dozen residents of Negro Hill were given stones that, um, misidentify the town’s name. Mormon Island Relocation Cemetery has been in the news lately because activists are finally trying to get the offensive stones replaced. The Army Corps of Engineers has apologized and posted all original documents pertaining to the cemetery. A spokesperson stated they have no idea who approved the stones, yet the disinternment and reinternment reports from 1954 are clearly signed by federal inspector Roland E. West and the contractor’s representative, Lauren Bryan. The N-word is typed on each report.
The OZ team wanted to see these shameful stones before they’re replaced (and we hope they’re replaced soon). We arrived on a windy morning and expected to find a crowd of gawkers, but the cemetery was deserted despite its current notoriety. The flat concrete markers are worn with age and some are barely readable, yet the N-word is clearly visible on many of them. We stared at them, not sure what to say about them, although “What the HELL were they thinking?” certainly came to mind.
Inmates at Folsom Prison have offered to make and install new stones. An Eagle Scout has raised money to pay for replacements. The Army Corps of Engineers has offered its assistance. However it happens, it’ll undoubtedly be a good thing when these markers are gone.
Beyond the stretch of flat concrete markers, we found typical Victorian-era headstones. The cemetery is sparse (there’s plenty of land reserved for future reinternments) and its most noticeable feature was the utter lack of greenery. Nothing seemed to grow within its borders. The effect was a bit unsettling but we didn’t get any weird vibes from this place. It just felt lonely.
More photos on flickr.