About the Roma: Who Are The Romani People?

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

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 www.kitandkinofthesouth.org 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).