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Queen Kelly's grave, Meridian, MS. (Photograph by Aric S. Queen)

“The Queen of the Gypsy Nation”

“If you’re looking for something interesting,” the security guard said, “you should go visit the Queen Gypsy’s grave.”

I asked who this was and he began to tell me a story that’s too long to go into here. In short, when Kelly Mitchell, “Queen of the Gypsy Nation,” died in 1915 while giving birth, as many as 20,000 Romanis showed up for her funeral in Meridian, Mississippi, flooding the small town to pay their last respects.

My interest piqued, I drove to the Rose Hill Cemetery, where she is buried, and wondered how I was going to find her grave among the thousands there.

Turns out, it’d be pretty easy. The headstone festooned with beads and trinkets — the one with a faded photo of Kelly leaning against it, and strewn with loose change, flowers, a tube of mascara, pens, costume jewelry, and other offerings meant to entice the Queen to provide answers to their problems from beyond the grave — kind of stood out from the crowd.

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Offerings left for the "Queen" (including my banana).

It’s an age-old stereotype that the Romani people have psychic powers (some say they invented Tarot cards), and many make their living in the fortune-telling trade.

I don’t care what you do or don’t believe – there’s no denying the energy in the air around her grave. It’s thick with mystery, time-travel, intrigue. I took a banana and a few coins out of my bag and laid them there with the rest of her gifts – paying homage to a person and a people many of us would like to think we understand… but secretly know we do not.

I left the cemetery to meet up with a friend who lives in Meridian, and after dispensing a hug and a hello, I just had to ask her about the grave – had she heard about it? Had she ever visited it? What did she know?

As it happens, she knew a few of Mitchell’s relatives who lived in town and asked if I’d like to meet them. The look on my face said enough.

A few minutes later, she came out with her phone. “Miss Mary will see you this evening.”

A few hours later, her phone rang. “Miss Mary just canceled,” she said, after hanging up.

This disappointed but didn’t surprise me. A nosy outsider — especially someone with a microphone, a pen and a camera — is probably not a big sell in a community that values its privacy.

“It’s probably just because of what they’ve been through,” my friend said. “The past few years in the city have been really rough.”

I asked her what she meant and she began to tell me how Meridian – a place, known as “The Queen City,” where tens of thousands of visitors come to pay tribute to Queen Kelly each year, has banned fortune-telling within city limits.

My friend went on to tell me that her niece, Jennifer Jacob Brown, had written a few stories on the controversial ordinance for the local paper, and offered to make an introduction.

“The city simply doesn’t allow them to open any business inside the city limits that they consider to be fortune telling, or spiritual advising – which is really hard to define,” Brown said.

In one of her articles, one of Kelly’s relatives, Sandy Mitchell, pointed out the absurdity of the ordinance, complaining that while Meridian is happy to use “the Queen’s” gravesite as a tourist attraction, they won’t let her descendants do business in the city. “If they’re going to outlaw fortune telling, I want them to outlaw horoscopes…fortune cookies…weatherman and stockbrokers,” he wrote, “because we’re all forecasting the future.”

I asked my friend to call Miss Mary and tell her I wanted to help get their story out.

Was I being honest? Yes, I was – I did want to help. A city that hangs banners that read “Welcome to the Queen City” downtown, but forces the people who made it that way to make their livelihood so far out they can’t see it rubbed me the wrong way. But I also simply wanted to meet these people.

After hearing more about my intentions, Miss Mary agreed to see me the next morning.

When I arrived, Lola, Mary’s daughter, answered the door, took my hand in both of hers and said, “Welcome” — her piercing green eyes counterbalancing a big white smile.

I looked around the room for any tell-tale signs of gypsy-dom. No men with tattoos, no women with big earrings, no crystal balls, no caravans waiting outside. It was a normal house with normal things inside it.

A few seconds later, Miss Mary came out to say “hello.” As we talked, she was quick to correct my pronunciation of “Roma” – a guttural sound to the “R” impossible to explain through words. She apologized for Sandy – her son – not being there; he was at church and wouldn’t be back until later.

Church? A house with walls?

The normality was palpable.

There was so much I wanted to ask them — about their people, their history, how fortune-telling “works” — but I realized that would have been overstepping. A few minutes later, a couple showed up to have their fortunes read, so I excused myself.

Miss Mary walked me to my car.

“Thank you,” she said. “I knew you were here to help.”

As I pulled away, she gave me a normal wave.

And walked back inside her normal house.

Many miles away from the Queen City’s center.

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