Jewish Community Wants To Preserve Historic Cemetery

The Biloxi City Council is facing a tough decision - what's more important, keeping a city street open to the public or closing part of it to preserve the Coast's only Jewish cemetery?

The cemetery is located at the corner of Elder and Reynoir Streets. Members of the Jewish community want the city to close 74-feet of Elder Street because it runs through the cemetery. But there are several obstacles to keep that from happening. Underground utilities run under the street, and the corner is used as a bus stop.

Nonetheless, some members of the Jewish community say their cemetery is sacred and should be protected.

Only one headstone and what may be part of another stands in the old Jewish cemetery that was created in 1853. A survey from the 1950's shows at one time, Elder Street was just a dirt path with the cemetery sitting on both sides. The land deed set aside seven and a half feet for public use, but now it's almost 30 feet wide.

"What we're asking the city is to end their encroachment to remove the pavement to vacate the street and let us preserve it as a historic site," Milton Grishman, a member of the Beth Israel congregation, said. "The state has declared the cemetery a historic site."

Grishman says even though no one knows how many people are buried in the cemetery, or if graves are under the road, the cemetery should be protected.

"A grave site is a sacred place. A burial site is given special status, and it's important to preserve that."

Ward Three Councilman Jim Compton agrees. But he says this is a land rights issue that might best be settled in court, and there are no easy answers.

"The right thing to do is not encroach on the cemetery, but the right thing to do can come at the wrong time, and this has been going on for like 50 years," Compton said.

In that time, underground utilities have been installed under Elder Street that Compton says would cost millions of dollars to relocate, and the school district uses the corner as a bus stop.

"I think the right thing to do is to restore the cemetery. I don't think it's proper for the city to encroach on a burial site, but 50 years after the fact is a lot to unravel," Compton said. "It's going to be very difficult to get to that point."

The cemetery issue is on Tuesday's city council agenda. However, Compton says it's doubtful it will be heard because some council members won't be at the meeting. Also, Compton says it might be a good idea to have a public hearing before a decision is made.

The Biloxi Planning Commission has already denied the request to close part of Elder Street.

A road also runs through an old section of the Biloxi City Cemetery. The road is known as Caldwell but still bears the name "Old Cemetery Road." It runs from Irish Hill all the way through the cemetery out to Highway 90.

City attorney Michael Collins says as far as he knows, there are no graves under the paved road and no one has ever questioned where it is located.

By Marcia Hill