BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) – In the middle of Baton Rouge’s Mid City, the Sweet Olive Cemetery, a place rich with Black history, lies in disrepair and overgrown weeds. It’s been an issue for over a century and now stakeholders are making a push to get the city involved in the cleanup.
“I think it’s part of the infrastructure,” said Markeda Cottonham, a volunteer. “I think it’s part of beautification. I think it’s part of quality of life. I think it’s part of history. We need to show out here in Baton Rouge that we respect and preserve history.”
The Sweet Olive Cemetery was the first cemetery for African Americans incorporated in the city in the 1800s. While the sign says it is a nationally recognized cemetery, there is no record of it being registered on any national lists.
Despite its rich history of prominent Black reverends, musicians, and community members buried there, from outside the gates it is clear to see how time and the Louisiana elements have taken their toll on the historically Black burial grounds.
Inside there are thousands of graves both above and below ground, hand-carved stones tucked in between mausoleums, all being gobbled up by plants and weeds. Volunteers have tried to help identify who is buried in the cemetery, but they have guessed that there are many unmarked graves and with so many on top of each other it is hard to tell how many there are.
“If you go throughout the entire place, there’s a lot of different little stories. I’ve met so many people who have family members buried here and just to hear, maybe not famous, but just to hear grandma stories about them spending time with their family that are now buried here. It’s sweet,” Cottonham said.
Cottonham has been a leading advocate for the cemetery since she walked past it years ago with her daughter and saw broken graves revealing the bones of people who should have long been at peace.
“I’m pretty sure it’s not healthy for exposed bodies and runoff water to be going into the sewage and wherever it does go to in the grass or where these kids play,” Cottonham said. “There’s a park right here on the corner. There’s a park right next to a place where there’s exposed bodies and exposed caskets.”
Following her research into the cemetery, she found a distant uncle who is buried beneath the grass and rubble.
There have been calls for the cleanup of the cemetery stretching back over a century. Groups like Friends of Sweet Olive will rally people together early on Saturday mornings several times a year to try and tame the weeds and cover graves with tarps.
“I mean, we are two blocks from Magnolia Cemetery and it is being well-kept by BREC and the city,” said Fairleigh Jackson with Preserve Louisiana. “Here we are in a very important Black cemetery that is a century old, that has a lot of history and it’s just ignored.”
Many have wanted the city to take over ownership but there has been confusion over who truly owns the cemetery.
“It’s embarrassing to the community. It’s embarrassing to the city and to the state. And we should just do better for the people that came before us,” Jackson said.
Volunteers contacted the Attorney General’s Office who narrowed it down to two owners — Mount Pleasant Baptist Church and Mt. Zion First Baptist Church.
Now there is a push to get the two churches together to talk about giving the cemetery over to the city.
“I know that there has been a lot of back and forth talk, but not a conversation where everybody is at the table and that would make the difference,” said Metro Council Member Carolyn Coleman.
A city spokesperson said the city can’t make any commitments at this time, but they are interested in the project. They said there is the consideration of the cost as well as the differing opinions of how the cemetery should be cared for.
Mount Pleasant’s head deacon said the church, with about 60 members, agreed they would be interested in signing over the ownership if Mt. Zion also agreed. Volunteers are putting together an official letter with signatures of stakeholders and support of the churches to ask the city to moderate meetings about the project.
“I’ve had a conversation with a person from the mayor’s office, and part of that conversation is talking about the budget. I’ve never seen anything not be able to be worked out when folks come to the table with open minds and really see about things getting done,” Coleman said.
The volunteers’ hope is that with the city taking over, BREC will be able to maintain the grass. As for the broken tombs, Cottonham’s nonprofit is working to raise money to repair them.
“This is kind of what is slowing my organization down because it’s the main focus when really the exposed bodies are the biggest thing,” Cottonham said.
After years of back and forth and more questions than answers, the first steps towards better preserving the historic cemetery are starting to be taken.
“When they do cut you see a lot more flowers on the graves. It’s actually really beautiful,” Cottonham said.
There is no timeline for when meetings with stakeholders will take place. Volunteers plan to keep doing what they can for the cemetery as they prepare for winter to slow the growth for the time being. But they remain hopeful that this hundred-year problem can soon be shifted into a story of preservation and valuable history in the heart of Baton Rouge.