SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Workers on Tuesday began installing new markers at a public cemetery near Sacramento where relocated Gold Rush-era gravestones had been marked with the N-word.
California prison inmates who are part of a work program placed granite headstones on many of the 36 graves at the Mormon Island Relocation Cemetery near Folsom, about 25 miles east of the state capital.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers relocated the graves from a site a few miles away known as Negro Hill to build Folsom Dam in 1954. The N-word was chiseled into the new markers, and activists have long sought for them to be replaced.
Only one word has been changed on the new granite slabs, which replace weathered concrete ones. The new stones say: "Unknown. Moved from Negro Hill Cemetery by U.S. Government, 1954."
"We are providing inmate labor and construction materials to rectify these historically inaccurate and offensive headstones," said California Prison Industry Authority spokesman Eric Reslock.
He said the work was expected to be finished Wednesday.
El Dorado County supervisors voted in May to replace the offensive gravestones for $18,000. Community activists who wanted the markers removed also wanted federal officials and the county to hire archaeologists to study the remains and determine who is buried there, as well as document the history of the black pioneers who lived in Negro Hill.
"When they decided to move the graves, how did the (N-word) get on the graves? That's not something they want to know," said Michael Harris, who has pushed for the headstones to be replaced.
"We're trying to bring dignity and respect to the pioneers, and I'd say we're halfway there," he said.
Documents released this summer by the Corps indicate that none of the 36 graves had markers when they were buried between 1850 and 1870. By the time they were moved, most of the graves contained little more than a few bones and, occasionally, pieces of wood and clothing.
During the hectic days of the Gold Rush, people poured in from around the world in hopes of striking it rich, and where they did, sites were typically named for the race, religion or social group of those who found it first and settled there. The Sierra Nevada foothills are filled with names like China Camp, Dutch Flat or Chili Bar, for Chilean miners.
At Negro Hill, two black men struck gold in 1849 and the area was named. But many white pioneers also relocated there and the race of those now interred at Mormon Island Relocation Cemetery is not definitively known.
Reslock said two of the tombstones bearing the N-word will go to the California State Archives, while the county is holding the remainder for now.
El Dorado County spokesman Mike Applegarth did not immediately return a call Tuesday seeking more information.