TREBLOC – It’d be impossible to count the tears shed at Soule’s Chapel Cemetery near the Chickasaw and Choctaw county lines.
The grief started with Carolina Gates, who was born April 7, 1845, and died Nov. 3 of the same year. According to historical accounts, her family donated the land for a cemetery, church and school.
The church and school were dismantled long ago.
“When the church is gone, people will tend to the cemetery for a few years,” said Gary Huffman, 66, of the Sparta community near Houston. “When the old people get to where they can’t do it, it gets abandoned.”
The cemetery remains, though not in the state bereaved families must’ve expected years ago.
“I started looking for my first Huffman relatives in Chickasaw County,” he said. “Dad had said the cemetery was around here, but he wasn’t sure.”
A former brigadier general in the Mississippi Army National Guard, Huffman decided to track down his family history after he retired. His great-great-great-grandfather, David Henry Huffman, moved to the area from South Carolina in 1847.
Huffman asked around, connected with the landowner and found Soule’s Chapel Cemetery, which was named after a Methodist bishop.
“When I first came here, there were only two or three tombstones you could see. They were on a chalk bluff, so there wasn’t much vegetation,” Huffman said. “Everything else was overrun.”
He never found David Henry Huffman’s resting place, but he discovered other limbs on his family tree. He also found a new mission.
The cemetery’s history is one of intermittent neglect. A fence was installed in the 1960s or ’70s, and another generation cleaned out tangles of trees, bushes and vines in the ‘90s and early 2000s.
“My uncle didn’t do it all by himself,” 75-year-old Ingomar resident David Baird said about Hubert Baird. “They’d go out there, clear brush and burn it. Then all those fellows passed on. After that, nothing actually happened. Nobody picked up the cause.”
Baird had returned to the South after living in Wisconsin, and he was wondering about the cemetery that had so fascinated his uncle. The landowner connected him with Huffman, and they got to work.
“We basically had to cut our way in,” Baird said.
“That first day we cut a path from the gate to the gate,” Huffman said. “We cut a path longwise and a path lengthwise. That was a day’s work.”
Their first efforts were about a year ago. Eventually, a core group of 10 people met regularly during the summer and fall of 2016.
“Gary, he’s kind of the team leader,” Baird said. “He took the bull by the horns and got us organized to have work days out there, to have resources out there and get accomplished what we needed to get accomplished.”
Sheriff Jim Meyers provided inmate labor from Chickasaw County Regional Correctional Facility. In addition to hoes, rakes, lawn trimmers and chainsaws, the team needed common sense.
“The first day Kay and her husband came, the heat index was 119, I believe,” Huffman said. “But we worked pretty much all day. You just have to drink plenty of water and take breaks.”
Kay Allen Manzolillo, 63, of Ethelsville, Alabama, was interested in her Allen and Carlisle relatives buried in the cemetery.
Some of their tombstones list County Limerick or County Antrim in Ireland as places of birth, while other tombstones have been obscured, broken or lost.
“There was a pile of tombstones at one time, just all piled together,” she said.
One of the team’s jobs has been to repair broken markers with concrete.
“The purists say you have ruined the tombstone,” Huffman said. “The other option was to let it lie on the ground in three pieces.”
One of Hubert Baird’s team members, Smith Henley, drew a plat of the cemetery on a grocery sack. That’s been an invaluable reference, especially when combined with historical information the current volunteers have pulled from different sources.
Huffman’s wife, Deborah, compiled the findings to create a database. Workers generally know which graves should have tombstones, but they’re not sure where the stones are.
“A lot of them have sunk into the ground,” Baird said.
“We’re going to have to poke and prod to find them,” Manzolillo said. “We know they’re here. We got the names and locations, but we can’t find them.”
“They’re probably only four or six inches deep,” Huffman said.
Outside the fence, the job is more challenging. Soule’s Chapel Church’s membership roles included about as many black members as white.
“There’s a world of graves outside of the fenced-in area. Many, if not most, are black graves,” Baird said. “Some of them might be slaves. Some were marked. Some of them were apparently not marked.”
David Abbott, an archeologist with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, examined the site in the fall and had planned to use a probe to identify unmarked graves, but that wasn’t necessary.
“The area in question is a cow pasture and the repeated trodding of the area by cattle had compressed any loose soil, revealing the grave shafts clearly,” Abbott wrote in his report.
He’d brought 200 flags to mark graves during his visit, and he ran out. The scope of the job the volunteers have set for themselves can feel overwhelming at times.
“It’s just difficult, what we do out here,” Huffman said. “You come out and do work all day, and you think, I did so much, but there’s so much work that needs to be done. The sad thing about it is there are hundreds of cemeteries out there just like this one.”
The next clean-up session is scheduled for May 20. Beyond that, the team members want to create a non-profit organization that could take tax-deductible donations.
The volunteers would like to install a fence around the African-American portion of the cemetery and establish a fund to ensure the cemetery gets the regular maintenance it requires.
“Our goal is to continue what other people did,” Huffman said.
“And, hopefully, some younger ones can come in here and keep it going,” Manzolillo said.
Obviously, they’re concerned for the final resting places of their relatives, who helped establish their family trees in Chickasaw County.
“You walk out here and see a baby and wonder what they went through,” Manzolillo said. “You see women who died so young. You think, What hardships did they have to endure?”
Thought also has been given to grief yet to be felt and tears yet to be shed. The stones and sunken graves are reminders of what’s to come.
“I wouldn’t mind being buried out here,” Manzolillo said.
“My wife and I have talked about it,” Huffman said. “It’s just a beautiful, peaceful place.”
With the briars and brambles gone and nature pushed back by degrees, it’s easy to see what attracted little Carolina Gates’ aching parents to the location so long ago.
“You’ve got to recognize that’s a pretty peaceful hill out there,” Baird said. “Quiet, a good place to rest.”