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A re-connecting with ancestors moment occurred in 1999, when I found the rural Mississippi cemetery where my paternal grandfather, Coleman Nelson is buried.
Family oral history had always said Coleman Nelson was buried in 1920 in County Line Cemetery in Jasper County, Mississippi. His daughter and my aunt Christine, in re-telling the story, shortly before she passed in 1998, used the term “County Line Baptist Church Cemetery.” That was the first time I’d heard the cemetery was at a church. The church, she said, had been the NELSON family church when she was a little girl into adulthood. The family didn’t have money for a tombstone, she said, for her "daddy"… For me that added another dimension to my search… now, I had to find an old country church, “if” it still existed.
Using an online phone book, I found several “County Line Baptist Churches” in Mississippi, but they weren’t listed by counties. So, I decided to take a trip back “home” and look around in person. In June 1999, my cousin Charles Terry and I drove to Mississippi to find a “County Line Baptist Church Cemetery”, in Jasper County.
We arrived in rural Jasper County on a very rainy Friday early afternoon. Our search, at first, yielded a series of dead-ends and mis-adventures. However, toward dusk, we finally spotted a “County Line Baptist Church” sign along Highway 503. And there was a good-sized cemetery in front, out by the road.
To my surprise, the little country church was not only still there, it was freshly painted, which told me they still held Sunday services there.
There we were… Charles and I on opposite sides of the cemetery, walking around in the mud and rain, peering at headstone inscriptions in search of any “Nelson” surname. I was about to give up when cousin Charles called out, “Here’re some NELSON’s over here.”
Even though I was over 60, at the time, I ran so fast, it seems like just a split-second of slipping & sliding through the mud and I was standing next to Charles looking at the graves of my Uncle Lige, his wife Aunt Nellie, and their two children Lillie and Letasker, all side by side…
My mind flashed back to when I was just 5 years old, attending Uncle Lige’s wake, in the living room of a house, in 1942. I remembered causing some of the grown folks to chuckle, when my father held me up so I could look into the casket. I was stunned and asked out loud, “How come Unca Lige ain’t got no legs.”
Someone tried to explain to me that only the top half of the casket was open and his legs were under the closed half. I recall still not understanding that answer, so in my mind, Uncle Lige (whose birthname was Elijah) didn’t have legs.
Several minutes after that reminiscing, it soaked in that although there had never been a marker or headstone, my grandfather Coleman Nelson was also interred somewhere on this sacred ground. My search was over, I’d found my grandfather’s grave cemetery, and just as important, the little church where he’d worshipped whenever he attended services, was still there and looked great compared to what I thought I might find. There are oral history stories about about my grandfather in church, too.
Charles and I saw some people outside of a nearby house and went over to ask about the church. That’s when we found out, services there, were held every other Sunday because the preacher had 2 small churches. The other one was in nearby Laurel, Mississippi. Services at County Line, we were told, had been held the previous Sunday.
Wanting to attend service the, a few weeks later, Charles and I drove down, again, arriving on a Saturday evening, so we'd be on time at County Line on Sunday morning. Rev. Elbert Lewis was the pastor and the congregation was small. I was stuck by the fact that there were on 2 or 3 men in the congregation.
After church, I met a distant cousin, Addie, who was in her 80’s and remembered some of my ancestral kin. She was so energetic that she took us around to the homes of some of my other distant kin. After I got back to Cincinnati, we stayed in touch, by phone and she was extremely helpful in putting more branches on my family tree. She even had relatives fill out "Family Sheets" and she mailed them to me. Cousin Addie was one of the many blessings of my "summer of '99."