Don’t Miss Rose Hill Cemetery Costumed Tour


The 4th Annual Historic Costumed Tour at

Rose Hill Cemetery, Meridian, Mississippi

September 28, 2013 6 p.m.

When I began researching the Romani Travelers for my novel, Into the Free…particularly the “Queen of the Gypsies” Kelly Mitchell, I was honored to have the assistance of Leslie Joyner who has spent years compiling records and archiving stories about the history of Meridian, Mississippi. She works for the Lauderdale County Department of Archives & History where she is currently publishing her second book about this rich culture. I’ve invited Leslie here today to tell you all about an annual event they host in Meridian, and I hope you’ll enjoy visiting the grave of Queen Kelly Mitchell and seeing her “come to life” in the upcoming cemetery tour.

INSIDER’S NOTE: In the novel, Into the Free, I renamed Rose Hill Cemetery. It is called Hope Hill in the book, but I drew the details of the location and the funeral from working directly with many wonderful researchers in Meridian, including Leslie.

Now…Here’s Leslie:

As you drive up the hill on 8th Street in Meridian, Mississippi you’ll see what to me is a huge cemetery surrounded by fencing. I had driven by this cemetery for years and always wondered about it. In 2010 I finally got the chance to get close and personal with the cemetery’s history, and the history of those that are resting there. My assignment from my supervisor, Ward Calhoun, Jr. in January 2010 was to research a list of about 20 people. At the time I did not know that a costumed tour was in the works so I began my research with focus.

Kelly Mitchell: Queen of the Gypsies, whose story inspired my debut novel Into the Free

Kelly Mitchell: Queen of the Gypsies, whose story inspired Julie’s debut novel, Into the Free

I spent the next several months researching what to me looked like it would be the most interesting of the subjects, the King and Queen of the Romani (Gypsies), Emil and Kelly Mitchell. Exactly how did someone not from Meridian, and perhaps had never even been to the area come to be buried in this cemetery?

I found that the Queen had died in 1915 during childbirth with her 15 or 16th child in Coatopa, Alabama and Meridian was the closest town that had access to an ice plant which would be needed to preserve her body. It would be many weeks for Kelly’s family and other Romani to make the trip by foot, train, horse or horse drawn wagon to pay their respects to the Queen.

Since her death nearly a century ago, her people come through Meridian to pay their respects, and to leave gifts at her grave. A small publication on the Mitchell family was completed in October 2010 and is available for purchase at the Lauderdale County Department of Archives and History, Inc.

Last month, I finally completed researching and writing everything that could be found on the other people that are portrayed in the tour: Lewis Ragsdale and John T. Ball, the feuding founding fathers of Meridian; John Taylor, Mayor of Meridian during the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878; Mississippi Legislature and Confederate Officer William Patton; Marjorie Woods Austin, the founder of the Meridian Little Theater and so many more interesting individuals who helped to make Meridian a great city! The biographies of the people that are portrayed on the tour is called “The People of Rose Hill Cemetery: The Tour” and will be available on September 28, 2013 at our next tour!

King Emil Mitchell was distraught when he lost his much loved wife during childbirth in 1915

King Emil Mitchell was distraught when he lost his much loved wife during childbirth in 1915

You can keep up with the tour through our website and Facebook Page

1 the crowd

If you do choose to go to the tour, be sure to arrive early…each year the crowds grow larger. Take a look at the line from 2011!

Julie’s bestelling, award-winning novel, Into the Free, is a coming-of-age tale set in Depression-era Mississippi. Many of the details are based on historical research from this region, including the Roma who caravan through town each spring to pay homage to their fallen queen. The sequel, When Mountains Move, launches SEPTEMBER 1. Learn more:

About the Roma: Who Are The Romani People?

Emil Mitchell, center. Photo courtesy of the Lauderdale County Archives and Leslie Joyner (

The Roma are believed to have originated in India. Known for their musical talents, King Shangul of India sent a large group of these entertainers (as many as 10,000) to the Persian leader, Shah Bahram Gur. There, they formed their own state on the banks of the Tigris River, but they were eventually imprisoned by the Byzantines who moved them into the current countries of Greece and Turkey. This took place approximately between 430 and 850 AD, while other Romani people remained in the northwestern regions of India.

Most research suggests a second migration took place from India in the 11th century, when many Romani left the region perhaps as mercenaries against the invading Turko-Persian Ghaznivid soldiers. Whether they left to fight these Muslim insurgents or to escape them is debatable, but it is generally believed that they were part of the Rajput Warriors (a ruling class of India) who were determined to defend their country even if that meant traveling to other countries to help deter invaders.

Over time, they migrated north through modern-day Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, and Afghanistan, and westward into the Mediterranean, Balkans, and Europe. As they migrated, they developed exceptional metal-working skills and became known for this important trade. As the first “people of color” in Europe, they were mistaken as Egyptians and thus called, “Gypsies.”

These people have survived generations of slavery, mistreatment, and abuse, including mass-extermination during the Nazi Holocaust, but they continue to thrive today across the world. Despite countless obstacles, most have managed to maintain their language, their music, and their traditions – although theses are often kept hidden from non-Romani society.

Records indicate that many Roma were first sent to “The New World” during the colonial period, particularly to Spanish Louisiana. Once again, many were eventually enslaved on Southern Plantations and an Afro-Romani population still lives in the South today.

The members of the Mitchell family who were buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Meridian, Mississippi, supposedly migrated from modern-day Brazil where Portugal had exiled it’s Romani population. From there, they roamed northward to the Southeastern US where many remain today across Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

For more information about the Romani people buried in Meridian, Mississippi’s Rose Hill Cemetery, visit and Item #394 Romani Royalty at Rose Hill Cemetery: King Emil Mitchell, Queen Kelly Mitchell and Family (also available as an e-book). And stay tuned for interviews with Meridian historians (coming soon).



About the Roma: Are There Really Kings and Queens?

If you visit Rose Hill Cemetery in Meridian, Mississippi, you’ll find the marker for Kelly Mitchell is inscribed with the words, “Queen of the Gypsies.” She was identified in that way by her husband (whose marker says “King”), and local historians say that many Romani people still visit Kelly’s grave to leave coins, trinkets, and gifts for their queen.

However, Dr. Ian Hancock, Professor at The University of Texas at Austin,  argues that there is no royal structure for the Roma and that the Mitchells would have not been an actual King and Queen. When I asked him why they have been reported as such throughout history, he kindly explained.

“In our language, the words for ‘king’ and ‘queen’ are thagar and thagarni.  They are not applied to any role within Romani culture, but to non-Romani kings and queens. The word for a leader is a baro. One can imagine Roma coming into a town, and being approached by the locals, perhaps the police chief, who asks to speak to the leader. He’ll ask the leader what is his title, and be told ‘baro’, which isn’t English, or perhaps be told ‘king’ since from the Romani point of view that is the English word for the top person. It began as a translation problem, but was quickly romanticized because of the literary ‘Gypsy’ image. From a king, the jump to a queen and a princess is easy. But these are not Romani concepts.”

Learn More about the Romani people by exploring some of the following online links:

The Romani Archives and Documentation center (RADOC)

Voice of Roma:

American Gypsy (Documentary):

Photographs by Rana Halprin – Roma from California to Italy, over the past 25 years

Little Dust Productions (film by Roma about Roma)