CARROLLTON – Legal arguments and testimony into a dispute involving one of Carroll County's pioneer cemeteries, Old Liberty or one of the Lott cemeteries in Beat 1, east of the Jefferson community, were heard by 6th Chancery District Judge Edward Fenwick on August 26 and 27 and September 5 before a capacity crowd in the courtroom of the Carroll County Courthouse at Carrollton.
Two principals in the Old Liberty case, which is made of several legal filings consolidated for the trial, are sisters, daughters of the late Johnnie Cecil Lott. Legally, Rita Ann Lott DeLoach and her sister, Cathy Lott Grantham, are on opposing sides.
DeLoach's case was argued by attorney Ryan Taylor, along with Devoe Lancaster, and Grantham's by attorney Jimmy Powell. The women's father died August 27, 2011.
Decades earlier, Lott had filed legal documents assigning acreage to each of his offspring: DeLoach, Grantham, and a third daughter, Linda Lott Douglas of Hattiesburg.
Grantham was given land where his brick dwelling was located, on one side of the Old Liberty Cemetery along Carroll County Road 93, also commonly known as Lott Road.
In his will, Lott specified Grantham's property excludes "two acres for the Lott Cemetery." The deed granted to Lott and his wife, the late Doris Beck Lott in 1946, also contained the exclusion of "two acres for a graveyard."
According to court testimony, Lott always honored the deed his ancestors, pioneers Aaron and Martha Lott, made to Liberty Baptist Church: An acre for a church and an acre for the cemetery, a couple of years before they both died in 1856. Their tombs, as well as those for many early Carroll Countians with different last names, are located in the old cemetery.
Still in the 1800s, the congregation of Liberty Baptist built a new house of worship three miles west, in Jefferson. A large cemetery spreads out from behind it.
While Liberty Baptist by early 2013 still technically owned those two acres where the early cemetery and church house were established, in more recent times, it provided no financial maintenance in an official capacity. The DeLoaches, who live nearby and whose relatives were those most recently buried at the cemetery, the latest in 1996, were often considered the unofficial sextons, along with Lott.
More and more people who sought out their roots in this area were taking in the preservation of Old Liberty Cemetery and worked with the DeLoaches and kin to try and establish the Old Liberty Cemetery Association. They spoke with the current leaders of Liberty Baptist about getting a title in order to facilitate maintaining the cemetery.
James Narmour, one of Liberty's deacons, and the church's pastor, Bro. Gary Tanner, along with the church secretary, Janie Upchurch, testified about discussions of possibly quitclaiming a deed for the property Narmour said he hadn't known the church still owned, to the newly-formed Old Liberty Cemetery Association. Church members had indicated interest in getting the Lott sisters together over the matter, but Tanner testified when he contacted the Granthams, who make their primary residence in Madison, they strongly objected. Tanner testified the Granthams told him the church had no right to give away the cemetery.
Cathy Grantham hired a surveyor, Joe Sutherland of Grenada County, to "survey out" the cemetery and file the information at the chancery clerk's office to define the lines of the Old Liberty Cemetery from inherited lands. She claims title to .27 acre of land that includes the access gate and road into Old Liberty Cemetery from County Road 93. Sutherland testified that Cathy Grantham brought him to the site to do a survey, with interest in retaining access from County Road 93.
Other witnesses, including her brother-in-law, Rita DeLoach’s husband, Kenneth DeLoach, testified that entrance was cut in 1963, and is the only feasible entrance into the cemetery today.
Sutherland did another survey for the DeLoaches, according to Rita DeLoach as advised by her attorneys, Taylor and Lancaster. Just as the survey for Grantham, Sutherland said he determined 1.55 acres, but in the second survey, there's no "slice" encompassing the area that since 1963, according to testimony Kenneth DeLoach gave Aug. 26, suggesting any outside ownership.
DeLoach said she'd told Sutherland her instructions for doing the survey were to "put it back like it was."
Much of the testimony focused on the Granthams' installment of locks on the metal access gate on several occasions, as well people cutting those locks.
Repeatedly during the course of the three days of evidence presented in the courtroom, images of the ripped-up culvert now placed atop a bed of sandy gravel in front of the access gate off County Road 93, were shown. On Sept. 5, Howard Grantham testified that he had taken up the culvert, blocking vehicular entry through the metal gate.
Michael DeLoach, a nephew of Kenneth DeLoach, described himself as disabled and said he was unable to get into the cemetery through a narrow opening near the gate or to walk to the family gravesites. He testified that in early encounters with both Granthams, he'd told them they had created ill will in the community by locking the cemetery gate.
Fay Herbert Oakes of Grenada was one witness who told of earlier visits to the Old Liberty Cemetery, visits unimpeded by locked gates or the need to ask permission of anyone. She'd had a Civil War gravestone prepared for an ancestor interred there, Oakes said.
William Thompson, who described himself as a historic resources specialist with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, said from the witness stand that an application the Old Liberty group had submitted for an historic marker for Old Liberty Cemetery had included data about former U. S. Senator Trent Lott, himself a descendant of the original Aaron and Martha Lott. Thompson said the application did not make it to the MDAH trustees for voting, because it was decided the cemetery didn't qualify for such a marker. However, an earlier application to MDAH in 1987 for designation of historic significance was granted.
Surveyor Joe Sutherland and both Granthams testified Friday, September 5.
Howard Grantham testified the gate was locked to prevent access onto their property -- not to block access to Old Liberty Cemetery. The gate off County Road 93, he said, was the easiest means of access to that portion of their land. He told the court he and his wife wished to protect their land from trespassers, but under questioning he testified during all the months since his wife had come into her land upon her father's death, nobody had cut the lock on a second metal gate along the cemetery fence and near the gravesites of DeLoach family members.
Grantham agreed on the stand that during the past months, he had stated "something like" that if people wanted to get into the cemetery, they could "crawl up the bank" to gain access. In response to a question about access for elderly visitors, he told the court they could use wheelchairs.
Sometime after May 4, 2013, the date of the Lott Reunion held at nearby Jefferson, the Granthams installed a "walk through" space to the right of the gate. However, the locks or cables to the gate the Granthams put there kept being cut.
Grantham, in response to an attorney's reference to Bruce Heath's testimony that it was he who'd bought that gate for the cemetery, said Heath could "get his gate off my property."
Cathy Lott Grantham asserted several times that while she doesn't claim to own the cemetery, she does own the access to it.
She testified that actions requesting the deacons of Liberty Baptist to deed the cemetery to the newly-formed Old Liberty Cemetery Association represented a spiteful action by her sister, Rita DeLoach, against her. The Granthams claim that legal claims against them amount to "slander of their title."
Powell, the Granthams' lawyer, hammered away at both Kenneth DeLoach, who identified himself as president of the Old Liberty Cemetery Association, and later his wife, Rita Ann Lott DeLoach, regarding bank accounts and finances of the fledgling Old Liberty Cemetery Association during the course of the hearing, wondering what the cemetery has to show for moneys collected, other than paying legal fees.
Fenwick visited the Old Liberty Cemetery for a walking tour of the disputed area after evidence presentation had been concluded on September 5, and briskly led the way through the now-overgrown road into Old Liberty.
Fenwick had ordered those coming along on the tour to maintain the same decorum expected within the courthouse, and that no one should interject information or comments during the tour but allow him to refer to his own notes during his tour.
Attorneys have until September 26 to finish submitting paperwork in the Old Liberty case, with a ruling to come at a later date.