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New Controversy Over Plan To Fix N-Word On NorCal Gravestones

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One of 36 grave markers that had been moved from the gold rush era Negro Hill Cemetery to the Mormon Island relocation cemetery near Folsom. The burial plots from Negro Hill went unmarked for more than half a century, until a contractor hired by the Army Corps of Engineers moved the bodies to make way for a lake, and marked the graves with stones that used a derogatory term for African-American. (CBS / AP)

One of 36 grave markers that had been moved from the gold rush era Negro Hill Cemetery to the Mormon Island relocation cemetery near Folsom. The burial plots from Negro Hill went unmarked for more than half a century, until a contractor hired by the Army Corps of Engineers moved the bodies to make way for a lake, and marked the graves with stones that used a derogatory term for African-American. (CBS / AP)

EL DORADO HILLS (CBS / AP) — Government officials inched closer Thursday to removing a racial slur on the headstones of Gold Rush-era graves, even as a leading advocate refused to support their plans.

The California Prison Industry Authority measured the 36 headstones in El Dorado Hills as they prepared blueprints for replacement markers.

In addition, El Dorado County Supervisor John Knight said he plans to get a proposal approved at a May 24 board meeting for the state agency to complete the project.

“We’re going to make a change, and we’re going to make a change now,” said Knight, whose district includes Mormon Island Relocation Cemetery, where the 36 settlers are buried.

Many people believe the new grave markers should say the dead came from the mining settlement known as “Negro Hill.” In 1954, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers moved the bodies to make way for a reservoir and gave them new gravestones reading “(N-word) Hill.”

Michael Harris, who has been pushing to get rid of the derogatory term, said he does not oppose the Prison Industry Authority’s offer to replace the markers in the cemetery 25 miles northeast of Sacramento. But he said he wants to see something in writing.

He also wants officials to restore a state landmark commemorating the pioneers from Negro Hill and establish a monument explaining they were wrongfully identified with the slur.

The Prison Industry Authority, which oversees work projects for state prisoners, previously said it could make new concrete gravestones, free of charge. But Harris wants granite markers, and the agency has since revised its plan accordingly.

Harris has not been satisfied with any offers to do away with the N-word so far, a process he believes must happen with a substantial tribute to Negro Hill and with approval from the black community.

“To this day, there’s no public process for all the people that have a stake in this to participate,” he said.

Harris accused El Dorado County of delaying the change for too long and of trying to fix the problem behind closed doors.

The county came closest to taking action in 2009, when an Eagle Scout candidate secured funding for granite markers and a monument explaining the cemetery’s history. But El Dorado County pulled out at the last minute, after Harris threatened to bring in lawyers because the project did not seek input from black people.

Knight said May 24 would be the time for Harris to give his input.

“I want for Michael Harris in public to tell El Dorado County what we’re doing wrong,” said Knight, adding that the board would consider all input but ultimately, “It’s absolutely 100 percent to the discretion of the county.”

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Wire services may have contributed to this report.)

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