Story at a glance
- Oaklin Springs Cemetery in Oberlin, southwest Louisiana, declined to bury Officer Darrell Semien due to his race.
- The issue of racism and segregation has appeared in U.S. cemeteries for centuries.
The board of a cemetery in Oberlin, La., has issued an apology after it denied to bury a Black sheriff’s deputy in light of an arcane rule only allowing white persons to be buried within the cemetery.
The Associated Press reports that on Thursday, the board of the Oaklin Springs Cemetery held an emergency meeting to remove the whites-only provision from its plot sales contracts.
“It’s horrible,” board president H. Creig Vizena told reporters regarding the clause. He added that the board members met to discuss removing the “white” provision from the cemetery contracts. A photo of the contract to purchase land within Oaklin Springs shows that it specifies the cemetery is for “the remains of White human beings.”
The Oaklin Springs Cemetery Board held an emergency meeting Thursday where it decided to remove language that read "The Right of Burial of the Remains of White Human Beings" from its burial contracts. https://t.co/bK81nBD3kP— KATC TV3 (@KATCTV3) January 29, 2021
The controversy was brought to light by a Facebook post by Karla Semien, the widow of the late Officer Darrell Semien. Upon arriving at Oaklin Springs to select a burial site for her husband, Semien was informed that she was ineligible to purchase a plot of land due to the whites only clause.
“He was good enough to protect you, being a police officer of all these years,” she told The Washington Post in an interview. “But he wasn’t good enough to be laid to rest in your cemetery?”
Vizena further explained that he was not aware of the clause’s existence, since the issue hadn’t arisen before.
“I truly hate that all this has happened,” he said. “It’s a sad week in this community, and fixing it as fast as we could is not going to make it any less sad.”
While systemic racism is being called out in more public arenas, it silently lurks in cemeteries across the U.S. The issue of burying Black Americans and white Americans in the same space dates back to at least 1876, in the legal case Mount Moriah Cemetery Ass’n vs. Pennsylvania.
In this case, the cemetery — the defendant — claimed it could not bury a Black man primarily due to complaints of white lot-holders. Ultimately, the cemetery lost the case, with the court declaring its refusal to bury the Black man “arbitrary and unreasonable, and therefore unlawful.”
Another case from July 1969 shows overt parallels to Semien’s situation. The Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham, Ala., refused to bury Vietnam veteran Bill Terry Jr., a Black soldier.
Terry’s family filed a lawsuit against the cemetery, and ultimately won the case with an interpretation of the 1866 Civil Rights Act ruling that Elmwood was “legally obligated to sell burial plots in its public cemetery to all United States citizens, on equal terms, without regard to race or color.”