Surveyors working on plans for a new parking garage at the University of Mississippi Medical Center made a grisly discovery as at least 1,000 unmarked graves were unearthed on the grounds slated for development. The unknown deceased are believed to have been patients of the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum more than 100 years ago, and officials now believe that the University of Mississippi property may also be the final resting place of victims of tuberculosis, slaves and casualties of the United States Civil War.
In addition to plans for the parking garage, intended to serve the school’s growing medical and dental schools, plans for the American Cancer Society Hope Lodge and the Children’s Justice Center were underway in the area as well. School officials say all of the plans may have to be altered as exhumation and reburial of the bodies would be cost prohibitive at this point. It is estimated that it would cost at least $3,000 per body to relocate and rebury the at least 1,000 deceased from the unmarked graves on the University of Mississippi campus. That is a total already at $3 million, even if no additional bodies are discovered. Officials say the projects can’t afford the additional cost involved to undertake such an effort. Each of the interrupted projects will be relocated, but parking on campus is already scarce and the addition of more facilities is expected only to exacerbate the problem.
This is not the first time that development on the campus has led to the discovery of unmarked graves. In 1990 at least 20 tombstones were found discarded near the medical center and in 2012 a construction crew unearthed 66 pine coffins containing bodies. Those bodies were exhumed and reburied in a nearby cemetery, but that option is not available now that such a large number of dead have been discovered.
The site of the medical center was once known as “Asylum Hill” and was the site of the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum built to house 150 mental patients in 1855. Following the Civil War, during which it is said the area was decimated, the asylum expanded to house more than 300 patients. Eventually, a sanitorium for tuberculosis patients, an orphanage, a church for former slaves and a factory were also built nearby. Cemeteries accompanied the development, with one designated for the asylum, one for the church and orphanage, and one for the tuberculosis patients; thus the speculation that a larger number of graves than have already been discovered await any further attempts at development on or near the site. The asylum moved in 1935 to pave the way for the medical school.
Although school officials and those affiliated with the medical school projects may be disappointed that plans for expansion have to be put on hold and altered, archaeology students at the University of Mississippi are taking the opportunity presented by the discovery of at least 1,000 unmarked graves to put their course work to practice. Students have had the chance to assist in measuring caskets and unearthing a variety of artifacts and human remains at the site. A spokesman for the school said that for the students, “Really it was a great learning experience.”
By Michele Wessel
First Coast News