the Lamington Black Cemetery
in Bedminster, New Jersey
in Bedminster, New Jersey
Most white Americans think that racial segregation died with the end of the "Jim Crow" era. However, in many areas of life, white people continue to separate themselves from non-white people--even when life is over.
Americans in general don't spend much time pondering death. The awareness of our own impending mortality--an awareness that perhaps most truly separates us from other animals--is continually repressed for us by America's consumerist, live-for-the-moment society.
In fact, in many ways, Americans more or less deny death, including the mass deaths caused in so many places by our white supremacist foreign policies.
As for white Americans, I think it's safe to assume that most of them probably aren't even aware of the many black cemeteries out there. If so, it means that they haven't taken another step in this regard, which is to consider what it would mean to be buried in such a place. To be a white corpse in the ground, surrounded by black corpses. To have those friends and relatives who are willing to visit their white remains come less often, because this cemetery is known as a "black cemetery."
And why, you might ask, would the possibility of a white body's burial in a black cemetery ever come up in the first place?
Here's a recent story about an incident in Texas where this possibility did arise. In this case, members of the white community rallied around a white body that was in danger of ending up in a black cemetery, apparently in an effort to "save" it from such an ignominious state of final rest. After all, the logic here seems to go, how could a white person ever rest in peace if she's surrounded by black people?
Racial divide stirred by burial of murder victim
By MONICA RHOR Associated Press Writer
© 2008 The Associated Press
HOUSTON — More than a year ago, an unidentified woman's body was found on a road, her dark hair shorn off, a plastic bag taped around her head, her hands severed. She had been strangled and tossed away by her killer.
Today, the crime remains unsolved, the murder victim's name is still unknown and efforts to bury her have set off controversy in Waller County — a rural area just west of Houston that has long been roiled by racial divisions.
The victim is white, while the funeral home and cemetery that a justice of the peace initially chose to handle her burial in Hempstead are historically black.
But Waller County Commissioners Court balked at paying for that burial. When activists started raising questions about the county's hesitation at burying the woman in a black cemetery, the commissioners asked a white-owned funeral home in Waller to handle arrangements.
That outraged Walter Pendleton, a local black minister who filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Hempstead that forced it to integrate its public cemeteries.
"I'm just appalled right now. I can't believe this county stooped that low," he said. "The county overstepped its boundary to get a white funeral home to pick up the body so that it could not be buried in a black cemetery."
The victim would be the first known white person buried in a black cemetery in Waller County. Since March 25, Waller County has paid neighboring Harris County $50 a day to store the body.
"I have never seen such defiance and determination to protect a segregated system," said DeWayne Charleston, the Waller County justice of the peace who first ordered the black funeral home to handle the arrangements.
Judge Owen Ralston, the county's top elected official, denied that racial issues were at play. "I didn't know if the victim was black or white, and I didn't care," Ralston said.
Rather, he attributed the delay in burial to the black funeral home director's insistence that the county sign a letter guaranteeing payment. Ralston said that went against county policy, and instead contacted another funeral home to handle the arrangements.
The white-owned funeral home picked up the woman's body on Monday — the same day community activists sent out a news release calling attention to the situation.
That a nameless murder victim's burial is stirring claims of racial discrimination is not surprising in Waller County.
In 2006, the Texas Attorney General investigated claims that the rights of black voters were violated. Earlier this year, students at historically black Prairie View A&M University protested to bring attention to racially motivated voting problems in Waller County.
"The issue of racism always raises its head here — from voting rights to education, to the criminal justice system," Charleston said. "Waller County is stuck in the 19th century."
Charleston said he wasn't trying to cause trouble when he ordered the black funeral home to handle arrangements for the woman. He was simply struck by the brutality of the crime and the poignancy of a murder victim with no family to claim her.
"You never know what her circumstances were. She could be from Texas and estranged from her family. She could be the victim of human trafficking," Charleston said. "She's certainly entitled to a dignified burial no matter what the circumstances. I'm treating her as though she is a kin of mine."
The woman's nude and mutilated body was found on a Prairie View road just before dawn on March 18, 2007. She is believed to be between 30 and 50 years old, and was likely killed at another location, then dumped on the roadside, police say.
"It was gruesome and that no one identified her or claimed her makes it more horrific," Charleston said. "I thought that this woman, if nothing else, was going to have the distinction of integrating Waller County cemeteries."
[The New York Times also covered this story]
PS--I have no idea how this poor woman came to her end, but her story reminds me of one of the most powerful films I've ever seen, Agnes Varda's Sans Toit ni Loi (Vagabond or Without Roof or Rule in English). Released in 1985, it follows a lone woman for awhile, raising questions (for me at least) about just what "freedom" and "community" really mean, especially when you die.
Here's a taste of it: