“There was a time when Sundays in the South were time for visiting with relatives and telling the stories of our families,” the lady remarked. “Those days seem so far away, and storytelling is a lost art,” she said wistfully.
The art of storytelling has nothing to fear in Meridian, Mississippi. The Rose Hill Company of Players performs annually in the fall, at dusk, in one of the oldest cemeteries in the city. Costumed actors portray some of the fascinating and well-researched former city residents while weaving historical tales in a lively, educational Rose Hill Cemetery Tour. The cemetery is near the intersection of 8th Street & 40th Avenue.
Rose Hill Cemetery Tour Begins
Lanterns glow across the landscape marking the path for the evening visitors – all eager to walk the graveled trail through the cemetery and hear the stories of hometown history in Meridian, Mississippi.
As dusk gave way to nightfall, the exuberant gathering became much like a community reunion with friends and families visiting one another, catching up on current events. They eagerly participate in these 14 mini-plays throughout the cemetery. While waiting for our entry time, the first group of actors came forward with a short bit about Union troop occupation during the civil war.
This story explained how the Union soldiers (under the leadership of General William Tecumseh Sherman) intended to burn all of Meridian, Instead they left a few homes standing, to the relief of the ladies in the act. In fact, much of Meridian burned. The rail lines were completely destroyed when Union troops raided the city in 1864. Countless families were left destitute and homeless.
The cemetery tour began promptly at 7:00 pm. In groups of about ten people each, we strolled along the graveled cemetery road, pausing at designated stations to be mesmerized at each stop with a selected tale of history.
Gypsy King and Queen Burial Plots
At the top of the hill from the main entrance, you’ll find graves of the king and queen of the gypsies. Gypsy Queen Kelly Mitchell has a much-adorned burial tombstone and concrete slab overlay, covered with offerings and gifts from her admirers and those paying respect to their cherished queen, who died in 1915 during childbirth at the age of 47.
This burial spot seems unlikely for the royalty of the Romani people. However, Queen Kelly untimely and tragic death required immediate action. Meridian was the nearest city with ice for preserving the body. The city size doubled for about a month as 20,000 members of the Romani tribe came to pay final respects and honor their queen.
The burial marker for Gypsy King Emil has coins and other small memorabilia, similar to the footings of the other Mitchell family graves. Often considered the most visited cemetery plots in Mississippi, these tombs have been a pilgrimage location for Romani gypsies and seekers for more than 100 years.
History of Meridian, Mississippi
We moved in quiet little groups to hear stories about a devastating cyclone in 1906, which killed 23 Meridian residents, leaving another 30 residents injured. Powerful winds blasted along Front Street, demolishing two blocks of buildings. The tornado hopped through the remaining downtown district and destroyed specific structures as well. However, the newly constructed Meridian Hotel and Union Depot were spared entirely. Seventeen people died inside in The Elmire Hotel, which was totaled.
Several mayors of the city touted their accomplishments, as only politicians can (with a captive audience, I might add). The stories were plentiful and the actors eager to take on even the most obscure of questions from the enthusiastic tourist clusters.
We learned about the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1878 which claimed 86 lives in only two months – from September 4 to November 7 of that year. There were 386 reported cases and many notable citizens who worked to help with the relief effort or succumbed to the illness during that miserable autumn. While many of the stories included tragedy and death, there was always an underlying tone of resilience and determination for this feisty city.
Founder of Meridian Little Theater
Finally, consider the story of Mrs. Hettie Marjorie Woods Austin (1892-1987), a Meridian native who was a poet, playwright and founder of the Meridian Little Theater. Actor Carolyn Starnes plays the role of Mrs. Austin, describing in the first person how this remarkable woman, born in 1892, studied at Brenau College Conservatory before spending time in Europe from 1912-1914.
Upon returning to the United States, she saw the angst of the Great Depression descend on her family and friends. To ease the rigors of daily living during times of scarcity, she rallied a group of like-minded artists. Together they began producing short plays in Highland Park. The city residents welcomed the entertainment, and eventually, Mrs. Austin founded the Meridian Little Theater in 1932. Now in its 85th Season, the Meridian Little Theatre continues as one of the South’s oldest subscription-based community theatres. More than 22,000 attend the theatre each year.
The theatre performs four major productions each season. Additionally, they offer a youth production and an annual children’s summer acting workshop.
Mrs. Hettie Marjorie Woods Austin brought joy into her corner of the world. Her tombstone, located near the cemetery entrance, has an ordinary and unassuming burial marker.
The Finale Performance
As a tribute to the Meridian Little Theater’s founder and the concluding note to our tour, Mrs. Starnes sang “Love Letters in the Sand,” a beautiful song made famous by Pat Boone in 1950’s and Patsy Cline during the 1960’s.
On a day like today
We passed the time away
Writing love letters in the sand
How you laughed when I cried
Each time I saw the tide
Take our love letters from the sand
You made a vow that you would ever be true
But somehow that vow meant nothing to you
Now my broken heart aches
With every wave that breaks
Over love letters in the sand
This song was such an appropriate finale to our night tour in the cemetery. I believe that the art of storytelling is alive. However, the stories of our community histories must be pursued and preserved. The Rosehill Cemetery Players are a dedicated group of talented actors, eager to share the stories of their hometown citizens.
If You Go
The tour organizers recommend for guests to wear sturdy walking shoes and bring a flashlight, and I certainly agree. The attendees walk in small groups with tour assistants to monitor safety and timing between the actors’ stations. With these small groups, it is easy to hear the program at every stop along the tour.
Mark your calendar for September 29, 2018, for the next live event in the cemetery with the Rose Hill Company of Players. Costumed actors portray some of the fascinating former city residents while weaving historical tales in a lively, educational Rose Hill Cemetery Tour.
For More Information
http://www.visitmeridian.com/index.cfm/historic-trail-markers/civil-war/civil-war-trail-marker-4/ – Meridian Mississippi tourism site (@visitmeridian or @cityofmeridian)
http://www.rosehillplayers.net/ – The Rose Hill Players website
https://www.facebook.com/The-Rose-Hill-Company-of-Players-125210517551517/ Rose Hill Players on Facebook