Ada Dupree and the Moses Cemetery: stories linked by race

Ada Dupree. Photo credit: Edisto Herald.

Ada Dupree (1887-1991) lived a long and consequential life. She moved to the small Florida town of Esto in 1902 at age 15. For the rest of her life, she and her family were among the few people of color in the rural panhandle community near the Alabama border. When she died in 1991 at the age of 104, her family began funeral arrangements in accordance with her wishes: Ada wanted to be buried in the town where she spent most of her life. But some residents in the mostly white community didn’t want her buried in the town’s “all-white” cemetery.

Ada’s story made national headlines and in 1998 former NBC legal correspondent Star Jones recounted the story to introduce her book, You Have to Stand for Something or You’ll Fall for Anything: “Sometimes it takes a story about death to teach you about life ….”

A St. Petersburg, Florida, newspaper reporter summarized Ada’s life in Esto:

They were the only black people in town for many years. Her husband, Gilbert, was a cooper who made barrels for a turpentine plant that once operated in the area. He died in the 1940s. Family members say she had “eight or nine” children and outlived all but one. One son, Ralph, was elected to the Esto Town Council but died two years ago of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The Washington Post reported on the conflict that erupted when locals learned that Ada was going to be buried in Esto: “Relatives changed their plans to bury her at the Esto Town Cemetery after callers threatened to shoot up the hearse and any black mourners.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote, “A 104-year-old black woman, denied her last wish to be buried in the tiny Florida community she helped settle, was laid to rest a few miles away in an all-black cemetery.” The July 28, 1991 article continued,

She wanted to be buried there, but her family on Friday took her silver casket seven miles across the Florida Panhandle to Graceville, amid public apologies from some Esto residents for anonymous racial threats.

Peggy Peterman, a pioneering African American St. Petersburg Times reporter and columnist, wrote about Ada’s final journey in a July 30, 1991 column:

People don’t have to search for signs of racial tension, it’s everywhere. Even in the little old Panhandle town of Esto. Recently, one of its oldest residents, 104-year-old Ada Dupree, requested that she be buried in the Esto town cemetery; a white couple offered part of their family plot. It seems Mrs. Dupree wasn’t so much concerned about being buried next to white people, she just wanted to stay in the town where she’d lived all of these years. Her relatives and others immediately received threats of violence. The white family that offered its plot also has had to endure harassment and threats. Mrs. Dupree was buried Friday in the all-black cemetery in Graceville. All this over a dead black body being buried among dead white bodies. My, my.

Peterman’s column inspired Veronika Jackson to write a song about Ada. Jackson is an acoustic folk and blues performer who later moved to unincorporated DeKalb County, Georgia: a place with a Decatur ZIP Code but located outside the suburban city’s corporate limits. I met Jackson in Helena, Arkansas, at the King Biscuit Blues Festival. She was checking out the stage where she was going to perform a set later in the day and we struck up a conversation about the festival. Then we asked each other where we were from.

Veronika Jackson, King Biscuit Blues Festival, October 6, 2017.

“Decatur, Georgia,” was what she told me.

That led to a conversation about gentrification, developers, and displacement in the community I have written about since 2011. After talking about social justice issues in Decatur, Jackson began telling me about how she uses music as activism. Jackson told me about a song that she wrote about Ada after reading Peterman’s 1991 column.

Jackson and I spoke for a little while longer, posed for a couple of pictures together, and we exchanged contact information. I asked if I could call her after the festival to talk about Decatur and about music. She said sure.

Veronika Jackson and I near the Delta Cultural Center’s Lockwood-Stackhouse Stage, October 6, 2017. Photo by Laura Hussey.

Last week we spoke again and I asked her about Ada Dupree and why she wrote the song. It was a timely conversation. Tomorrow I will be participating in rally to support the preservation of the Moses Cemetery in Bethesda, Maryland. Like Esto, Florida, Bethesda’s River Road community was a small rural hamlet founded by African Americans who ultimately were overtaken and displaces by whites. And like Esto, the desecration of the Moses Cemetery underscores the continued inequities in American society where racism persecutes people of color into the grave and beyond.

Here is an excerpt from my interview with Veronika Jackson where she’s telling me about Ada Dupree and the song of the same name:

I’m talking about Ada Dupree. Ada Dupree, she was a woman buried in an all-Black cemetery and it was at the Florida panhandle. It was Esto …

Now see, they were the first immigrants there in that area because you know if they weren’t from Africa, they probably were from the islands or something; I’m not sure. But Ada Dupree, she was like 104 years old and when her and her people were living on that property, thenthe property began to change. It began to change. The white people started moving in.

And see, Esto is at the border. I think it’s like near the Florida-Alabama line in there. It’s been many years since I wrote that song. Over 25 years, I think, since I wrote that song.

It’s my understanding that she moved there in the early 1900s and she cared for a lot of white folks. She was there before any white people were there, you know.

And it was kind of sad. But then she had to be — they moved her, you see. They said that the Duprees were the only ones in that area for a very long time until the white people moved in. Peggy Peterman wrote the article in St. Petersburg, Florida.

And then when I read the article, I wrote a song and I was a little leery to sing the song when I moved up here, you know, but then I started singing it and it was all right and then, you know, she had to be buried a few miles away in an all-Black cemetery. They wouldn’t let her be buried in Esto ….

Well, during the time when I was very active in the community and I was an activist and still am in a big way. When I read that, being a songwriter, I felt like people needed to know about this lady and how things turned out for her. You know, to be there at first, being her family being the only Blacks there and then it turns around to a white settlement and then she dies and then can’t be buried there but has to go and be buried somewhere else, that was too strong to not write a song about. To see how people still feel like they have to be in control and treat people wrong, you know. And being mean with the racist words and the acts and things like that.

You know, so I felt it was very important to write that song.

According to the 2000 Census, Esto had a population of 364: 350 people identified themselves as white; four identified themselves as African American. The kerfuffle over Ada Dupree’s burial took place in the last decade of the 20th century. It exposed the festering racism that continues to dominate the Deep South.

A quarter century later, River Road’s descendants in Montgomery County, Maryland, are fighting for the same dignity after death that Ada Dupree’s family sought. The Moses Cemetery is a poignant story about life, death, and the displacement of the living and the dead. As Montgomery County’s leaders consider the message that the River Road descendant community is sending, it is worthwhile to recall Star Jones’s words, “Sometimes it takes a story about death to teach you about life.”

Macedonia Baptist Church congregation and supporters demonstrating at a Montgomery County Housing Opportunities Commission meeting, Nov. 1, 2017.

© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein




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