The board of a small Louisiana cemetery that denied burial to a Black sheriff’s deputy held an emergency meeting Thursday and removed a whites-only provision from its sales contracts.
“When that meeting was over it was like a weight lifted off of me,” H. Creig Vizena, board president for Oaklin Springs Cemetery in southwest Louisiana, said Thursday night.
He said he was stunned and ashamed to learn two days earlier that the family of Allen Parish Sheriff’s Deputy Darrell Semien, who died Sunday, had been told that he could not be buried at the cemetery near Oberlin because he was African American.
“It’s horrible,” Vizena told The Associated Press on Thursday morning. He said the board members removed the word “white” from a contract stipulation conveying “the right of burial of the remains of white human beings.”
“It took more time to keep up with the Roberts Rules of Order” than it did to make the change, he said.
Karla Semien of Oberlin wrote Tuesday on Facebook that a woman at the cemetery had told her that her husband could not be buried there because it was for whites only.
“She stood in front of me and all my kids wow what a slap in the face. I just can’t believe in 2021 in oberlin Louisiana this is happening,” Semien wrote.
“To be told this is like we were nothing. He was nothing? He put his life on the line for them,” Semien told KPLC-TV on Wednesday. She did not immediately respond to a Facebook message from the AP requesting comment.
Vizena said when he told other members about the language, each one said it had to be fixed.
The offensive wording wasn’t in the cemetery association’s bylaws but only in sales contracts used since the cemetery was created in the late 1950s, Vizena said.
People tend to sign such things without reading, he said.
He said a relative of his was the woman who told the family, and she was “relieved of her duties.”
Vizena said he was on his way home from work Tuesday when a deputy who had known Semien called to tell him about the rejection. Vizena said he apologized to the family and offered one of his own plots in the small cemetery, which he estimated covers less than two acres (0.8 hectares). But, he said, the offer was turned down: The family said Semien, who was 55, couldn’t rest easily there.
“My dad wasn’t any man, he was a phenomenal man,” daughter Shayla Semien told KATC-TV. “He was a police officer in this same community for 15 years. He was denied a place to lay because of the color of his skin.”
Vizena said he believes Oaklin could not have been the only cemetery with such segregationist holdovers. Cemetery associations throughout the South and the country should check their bylaws and contracts for such language, he said.
“People, please get out and look at your cemetery bylaws, ordinances in your towns, rules in your churches. Get out there and clean it up.”
For Oaklin Springs Cemetery, he said, “It’s a stain that’s going to be on our cemetery and our community for a long time.”
But he said, he thinks his grandchildren will be able to say, “Hey, my pawpaw fixed that.”
McConnaughey reported from New Orleans.