The construction crew digging out a new road almost a decade ago also uncovered an on-ramp to a long-buried history: the resting place for more than five dozen coffins. But not the final resting place.
The accidental discovery of the remains of patients from the bygone Mississippi State Hospital for the Insane was an outrider of a tally now estimated to be in the thousands: people laid in now unmarked graves on what is today the grounds of the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC).
For at least eight years now, UMMC officials have sought a path that sustains campus expansion – for the sake of future patients – while honoring those patients from the past.
Now, with $3.7 million in support from the Mississippi State Legislature, the Asylum Hill Project has realized a breakthrough: funding to exhume the graves and furnish a final place of honor for the people who lie in them.
“This will allow us to bring back into the community, as best we can, their individual stories and humanity,” said Dr. Ralph Didlake, professor of surgery, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at UMMC.
Part of the medical center’s overall appropriation approved during the recent 2021 legislative session, the multi-million dollar Asylum Hill allotment makes possible the ongoing project’s second phase: exhumation and curation.
“The Legislative Budget Office and others really came to our aid,” said Didlake, director of the Center for Bioethics and the Medical Humanities at UMMC, and leader of the Asylum Hill Research Consortium, a pool of scholars gathered in 2013 to investigate the history of the asylum while respecting its patients’ legacy.
The new funds will enable the hiring a crew of technicians, as well as a bio-archaeologist – a specialist in the study of skeletal remains – and will pay for the development of an education program.
The money will help cover the costs of archiving and storing asylum patients’ remains in the medical center’s archival facility on West Street, which houses a Rowland Medical Library print collection and offers temperature and humidity control, a fire suppression system, back-up electrical power, 24-hour key card security and 9,000 square feet of archival space.
That will be “interim housing,” Didlake said, for several thousand people, many of whom were African American; they will be remembered with a permanent memorial.
With the appropriation, the project is also creating space for scholars to work in, to gain knowledge that will help the world better understand the many lives represented by or connected to the coffins: those in the asylum, those of Mississippians in general, and those of people with disabilities.
The allotment will enable the medical center to reclaim the current burial sites for future land development.
The team to do all of this work should be in place and at it by end of this year, Didlake said. By then, guidelines will be set to direct the work “technically, ethically and culturally.”
Much of that guidance will come from an advisory board of Mississippians who will contribute a wide range of expertise; its members will engage the community and offer direction on excavation and curation work.
They will pay attention to the sensitivities, including religious ones, Didlake said. The idea is to treat these former patients as humans, not artifacts.
Apparently, no one claimed the bodies of these patients before they were buried. For the most part, asylum residents have remained anonymous.
Matching many of the remains to a death record would be costly, requiring DNA testing of samples descendants provide. “DNA from each may not even be possible,” said Lida Gibson, assessments and research coordinator for the project.
“For at least some of the remains, it’s impossible at this time because of deterioration caused by high moisture content and the normal expansion and retraction of the Yazoo Clay.
“It’s important to know, though, that the graves were marked originally,” Gibson said. “Archaeologists and institutional records have established that they were marked by stone or marble, but the large majority of the markers were painted wooden stakes, all of which deteriorated.” That is why the graves are now unmarked.
Still, completing a history of the asylum and finding descendants of as many its patients as possible are goals of the consortium, missions the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well, has boosted.
A $249,836 NEH grant announced last September made possible “An Investigation of the Mississippi Lunatic Asylum as History and Memory,” an undertaking continuing through 2023 and led by Dr. Amy Forbes, professor of history at Millsaps College, and associate professor of academic information services at UMMC.
This had followed the NEH’s $11,993 Common Heritage Grant for, among other things, video recording equipment and scanners to reproduce historical documents and publicity to encourage patients’ families to come forward.
“So far, I’ve corresponded directly with about 150 descendants/relatives, many of whom no longer live in Mississippi,” Gibson said. Many are curious about their ancestors and want to preserve their memories, she said.
They can also contribute to, or avail themselves of, the website managed by Gibson, a film documentarian who is coordinating the oral history mission.
For Gibson’s part, she continues to search for photographs, newspaper clippings, official records and more related to the asylum, documentation the descendants often supply and which can be vital in drawing a detailed picture of patients who were often marginalized when they were living.
But, as Didlake acknowledged, not all of those descendants may want the type of closure the project is offering. Some may prefer leaving their relatives where they are.
The challenge for UMMC, he said, is navigating the intersection of obligations to the asylum patients and “the ethical obligations we have to care for current and future patients.”
As to the former, Didlake said, “we’re committed to the respectful handling of their remains; we’re going to care for them because they were patients we inherited.”
But, in order to give the best care to current and future patients, the medical center’s footprint must be able to grow, he said.
“It can only expand on the land it has now, and some of the land holds the graves.” Many lie under the last undeveloped space on campus, he said.
At the time, among those were the graves that gave life to the Asylum Hill Project; they numbered 66, originally, with a 67th found later. It happened during road improvement work involving Peachtree Street and University Drive.
The first one emerged in November 2012 during exploratory digging of the soil, with more discoveries appearing through early spring of 2013.
Before the construction began, and because of the state-owned land’s history, the University of Mississippi Center for Archaeological Research made surveys of the area. Between September 2011 and January 2012, metal detectors, ground-penetrating radar and other methods probed the ground; they didn’t go far enough.
Because of other, ongoing construction, the survey ended just short of the area where the first 27 graves would be found. Most of the remaining 40 or so were lying under an existing road, and for that reason the area was not surveyed.
The crews who had built the existing road did not do a type of excavation called undercutting; so those burials had remained hidden for decades.
Segregation times two
The five dozen coffins unearthed in 2012 to 2013 date from the late 19th to early 20th centuries, corresponding to the asylum’s years of operation on what became medical center land.
“This is based on the examination of the coffin wood by our dendrochronology partners, who can sometimes pinpoint cut-dates based on tree ring patterns,” Gibson said.
A team from the Mississippi State University Department of Anthropology removed and documented the skeletal remains, steered by standards of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson.
In 2014, during a preliminary evaluation of a site planned for a new parking garage east of the dental school, gradiometry disclosed a constellation of up to 2,000 more graves by detecting nails in the coffins. “It enabled archaeologists to ‘see’ the outline of coffins underground,” Gibson said.
UMMC officials found a new site for the parking lot.
That was not all. Another geophysical survey showed that many more coffins lie underground – as many as 7,000, estimates say -- across about 12 acres of UMMC land; clearing it would free up about 18 acres for development, Gibson said.
The coffins are among the few surviving, physical reminders of what was originally known as the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum, whose origin story is now 166 years old. The institution, the first of its kind in the state, opened in 1855 and closed in 1935, its timeline transected by the Civil War, World War I, the Great Depression’s early years and the prelude to World War II.
Its successor is the Mississippi State Hospital, located in a Rankin County community later renamed Whitfield. The asylum’s buildings, there were dozens, were demolished to make way in 1955 for the opening of UMMC.
During its 80-year operation in the state capital, the hospital became the permanent or temporary home of some 30,000 to 35,000 patients, situated on a tract of land that grew to 1,320 acres.