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State of 'Black Cemeteries' Roils Texas Town

The city won't maintain them, saying they're on private land. Protesters call it discrimination.

June 15, 2003|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

HEMPSTEAD, Texas — As graveyards go, the public cemetery here couldn't be lovelier: shaded, peaceful, well-maintained. "It looks like everybody dead over there is having a family reunion under the trees, it's so nice and pretty," said resident Lisa Ragston.

Ragston, who is black, visits her father's grave regularly. Not at the pretty Hempstead Cemetery that she -- and everyone else in town -- calls the "white cemetery," but 150 yards away in the "black cemetery," a parched expanse of broken headstones and sunken graves strewn with trash.

"It's a mess over there," said Ragston, who makes sure her father's grave, at least, is clean. "Why am I paying taxes to keep the white cemetery nice when the black cemetery looks like that?"

A group of local black ministers in this farm community 50 miles west of Houston is asking the same question, pressing the mayor to take responsibility for property they say is owned by the city. The city has assumed for decades that Hempstead's two black cemeteries -- named Houston and Oakwood -- are on private land. After weeks of controversy, city leaders ordered a search of property records dating to the 1800s. An opinion on whether the city owns the title is being prepared by an attorney hired by the city, and may be presented as soon as this Monday's council meeting, said Mayor Hayden Barry. "This isn't a black-white issue. It's a legal issue," said Barry, who is white.

The Rev. Walter Pendleton, a minister pushing for change in this town, population 4,691, said it took his group one afternoon at the Waller County courthouse to trace the land back to the city. Why it's taking the city weeks to reach a title opinion is beyond him. "If they're searching for an owner, all they gotta do is look in the mirror," he said.

Few took Pendleton seriously in 1986 when he planted a sign in his yard after a frustrating search for his mother's grave in Oakwood Cemetery. "Stop Black City Cemetary Discrimination," it read. As the years passed, his sign became part of the neighborhood landscape, no more noticed than his periodic appearances at city hall. "The dance never happened," said Pendleton.

The grass and garbage were knee-high in Houston Cemetery this spring when several black ministers broke from the town's established ministerial alliance to form what they called "The New Voice." They were fed up with graveyards that looked like junkyards, and vowed to do something about it.

Now the city's problems are bigger than a few acres of land at the edge of town, said Pendleton. Last weekend, more than 150 protesters -- led by Minister Quanell X and the activist New Black Panthers -- marched to Barry's house and demanded answers. A lawyer is looking into a possible racial discrimination lawsuit. The New Voice is asking why, in a city that is 43% African American, there are no black officers on the 10-person Hempstead police force.

They're also demanding the resignations of the mayor, city administrator and police chief. Barry was singled out for refusing to ride in the upcoming Juneteenth parade, which marks the day in 1865 that Texas slaves belatedly learned they were free. On this issue, the mayor stands firm. Barry doesn't do parades. "Never have, never will," he said. "I have also declined to ride in the Chamber of Commerce Watermelon Festival parade, Christmas Festival of Lights Parade and Waller County Fair Parade.... I prefer not to ride in any parade."

Leroy Singleton, who served as mayor of Hempstead from 1984 to 1990 and was the first black to hold that office, counsels patience. Change comes slowly here, he said.

Twenty years in local politics taught him that antagonizing the powers-that-be does more harm than good. "You have to let some of that go," he said. Singleton, now a county commissioner representing a precinct that includes Hempstead, said the city initially "ran" from the cemetery issue. Now that they're listening, work with them, he said.

Hempstead's old-guard, racially mixed ministerial alliance has agreed to do just that. They plan to devise a maintenance schedule for the cemeteries, regardless of ownership. As a member of this conciliatory group, the Rev. Fred Thomas will be setting aside his own experience with flexible notions of land ownership. Several years ago, while hauling away debris from Houston Cemetery, Thomas was ordered to leave. He was on city property, police told him. "The law was called in," said Thomas, who is black.

Pendleton is put off by efforts to work with city leaders whose goal, he said, is to make the embarrassing publicity go away. "They just want to smooth things over with the cemetery, forget everything else that's happening here and go back to the way things were," he said.

His activist approach is working, Pendleton said. After word spread about the black cemeteries, volunteers from area churches poured into town with mowers and buzz saws, hacking down weeds, collecting garbage, righting tombstones.

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