More than 150 community activists on Tuesday applauded a state agency’s move to sue the owners and overseer of a historic north Baton Rouge cemetery they say has fallen into an embarrassing state of neglect.
The three lawsuits, filed Monday, set the stage for appointment of a receiver to take over managing Gilbert Memorial Park Cemetery, Assistant Attorney General Ryan Seidemann told members of Together Baton Rouge at a luncheon meeting at St. Mary Baptist Church.
The Louisiana Cemetery Board, which is represented by Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, filed the suits in 19th Judicial District Court against the cemetery’s owners and its overseer, Lymus Washington, for operating without a license for the past eight years.
“This is the culmination of a very long road for us,” Seidemann told Together Baton Rouge members.
Many black Baton Rouge residents, including prominent civil-rights leader Gus Young Jr., are buried at the Gilbert Memorial Park Cemetery.
Seidemann said the Louisiana Cemetery Board has received numerous complaints about the way the cemetery, located at 5600 Greenwell Springs Road, is being operated and maintained.
Several residents with family members say it is often so choked with overgrown weeds that they have trouble finding the plots where family members are buried.
Annette Wilford, a Park Forest resident and Together Baton Rouge leader, spoke of walking through knee-high grass to her father’s burial plot in 2003 to find that his gravestone had been stolen. She said one that was in place for her mother, who was still alive at that time, had also been stolen.
“The cemetery is just deplorable,” Wilford said. “No cemetery should be like this.”
Metro Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis said she has been trying for years, without success, to find the burial plot of a grandfather at the cemetery.
She said the cemetery needs to be returned “to a place of honor and respect within our community.”
Elouise Paulfrey, whose parents and other relatives are buried in the cemetery, said she wants “their final resting place to be a source of peace and dignity, not humiliation and frustration.”
Washington, the cemetery’s overseer, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that he’s done the best he can to maintain the cemetery with the resources he has available. He said many families aren’t paying the annual $25 upkeep fee.
“What little comes in goes right back out,” Washington said.
He said the only thing he knows about the lawsuits filed by the Attorney General’s Office is what he has read about them in the newspaper and seen in television newscasts.
Seidemann said legislative changes in 2008 and 2010 gave the cemetery board authority to appoint a receiver for cemeteries in cases like Gilbert Memorial Cemetery.
“A receiver is basically somebody who is capable of operating the cemetery until a permanent owner can be found to nurse it back to health,” Seidemann told the group
The Rev. Ronald T. Williams, pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church of Baton Rouge, said after the meeting that Together Baton Rouge will try to identify individuals or organizations interested in serving in the role of receiver.
Williams said a selection committee including families who have loved ones buried in the cemetery and representatives of the state Attorney General’s Office will select the most-qualified receiver.
He said the receiver could be compensated in various ways, including new burials on land at the site that is still undeveloped.
Williams also said dozens of families have said they would be happy to pay a maintenance fee “if they knew the money was actually gong to be spent on maintenance.”
He said Together Baton Rouge hopes a receiver can be hired and in place by late November.
In the meantime, Together Baton Rouge plans a community clean-up at the cemetery at 8 a.m. Nov. 5.
Those interested in helping are asked to contact the group by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org.