Dateline Lubbock

Oh, Bury Me Not


The Lubbock City Cemetery lies east of downtown, on the far side of a treeless subdivision where “you won’t see a white face,” one local told me, “unless the police come around.” In the days of segregation, the white part of the cemetery was up front; the black and Latino sections, known respectively as “Old Colored” and “Old Catholic,” were in the back, separated by a drainage ditch from a cotton gin and the old city dump. Here in the City of Churches, segregation was for eternity.

Officially, the Civil Rights Act integrated Lubbock and the City Cemetery in 1964. In reality, change has come to the cemetery as slowly and erratically as it has to the rest of the city. For some who were buried in the graveyard, and for their survivors, the legacy of bigotry may be as permanent as death.

On a chilly November night, at a community center a few blocks from the cemetery, Lubbock attorney Steve Claus convened a meeting of those who are suing or wish to sue the city based on the way it runs its burying ground. It was just two days after Dia de los Muertos, and many in the crowd would have made the traditional graveside visit to their dead loved ones—if they had known where to find them. The plaintiffs and would-be plaintiffs—nearly all of whom are black or Latino—say they can’t find the graves of family members buried in the cemetery. The suit alleges that the city cemetery kept shoddy records of minority burials, neglecting to note the locations of hundreds of graves. Some bodies may have been buried in the wrong plots, under the wrong names, and even on top of one another. Some who buried family members in the cemetery decades ago have been looking for them ever since.

As the room settled to silence, Claus flashed a slide of two photographs up on the overhead projector. One showed the old minority cemetery as it looked half a century ago, a grassless expanse of scarred caliche. The other shows the same spot today, grassed over. Claus pointed out that the background of the old photo shows scores of headstones and markers. In the newer picture, there are almost none. “I’d like to think of this as a tale of two cities,” Claus said. “We’re talking about an older Lubbock, a place where they didn’t care much about minority folks. Then there’s the city today, that hopefully wants to do better.”

Claus flipped next to a slide showing two pages of burial records, one from the white section of the cemetery, the other from the “Old Colored” section. The burials of Lubbock’s white citizens are recorded in spidery Victorian script; they give section number, row, and space for each grave. The minority burials have no such enumeration. Most say just “Old Colored Space,” “space ground” or “Old Catholic.” Even the handwriting is different—sloppier, in places illegible. Because of the carelessness with which the records were kept, Claus told the assembled families, many graves will probably never be found.

Claus reviewed the finer points of the lawsuit: The six original plaintiffs have offered the city a settlement under which the city would erect a monument to all the Lubbock cemetery’s missing dead. The offer also includes reparations of up to $250,000 for each of the original plaintiffs. Claus says if the settlement is rejected, he will ask for a change of venue for the trial. The potential cost of even minor reparations, once all the plaintiffs are added to the suit, would strain city finances; he believes no jury of taxpayers would vote for it. So far, the city attorney’s office declines to comment on the settlement. (The suit is meeting resistance from Lubbock’s tight-knit political network. One Lubbock County judge has already refused to initial routine paperwork associated with the suit, Claus says. Attorney friends have warned him that the suit will have repercussions for him and for his firm.)

In court papers filed last June, the city attorneys invoked the state law that says a city can’t be sued for the performance of a governmental function. The law makes a specific exception for the operation of a cemetery, however. The city also cited the statute of limitations, since some of the burials in the original suit took place as far back as 60 years ago. Claus asked for patience from the more than 70 people waiting to be added to the suit: The costs of discovery for each individual case—proving that each burial took place in the Lubbock cemetery and that each grave was missing—would be enormous. Paying for those expenses out of pocket would bankrupt his firm, and he wanted to put off the costs as long as possible. Despite the odds, Claus remained upbeat about their chances.

“You’re not backing out are you?” someone in the audience called out.

“I’m not backing out,” he said. With that, he turned the projector off and asked for questions.

A young black woman stood up in the back. “Are you saying that some of the graves out there that are missing won’t ever be found?” she asked. Claus agreed that was likely. She turned and abruptly left the room. When she returned several minutes later, her eyes were red and she held a crumpled tissue tight in her fist.

The woman’s name was Tina Childress, and she went out to the cemetery with me the next day, to show me a grave that wasn’t there. Childress’s mother, Evonne, died of cancer in 1988, when Childress was 15. The rest of the family fell apart soon afterward: Childress’ father began drinking heavily and lost the mortgage on the house. She left home and lived for a time with other families or slept in abandoned houses. In 1991, Childress and her younger sister visited the city cemetery for the first time since the funeral. They planned to buy a headstone for their mother’s grave, but couldn’t remember where it was, so they tried the cemetery office.

“They asked me where she was, but it had been so long, all I had was memories. I said, ‘Don’t y’all keep records of that?’ I thought someone might go out there with me and help me find it. They just gave us a map, and we ended up out here.” Childress looked around us at the grass and trees and strangers’ headstones. Her father is terminally ill and wants to be buried next to his wife. She has not told him that the grave is missing. The back section has improved since the old days, though the brick-red clay still shows easily the scars of earth-moving equipment, and the grass is slow to re-grow. “The landscape has really changed a lot,” she said.

For many of the plaintiffs, the cemetery suit is not the first time they have tried to take the city or other local institutions to court. Many tell of being harassed by the police, turned down for loans they qualified for, or passed over for jobs and promotions in favor of less-experienced white colleagues. Childress tried for six years to negotiate with the Lubbock Independent School District over what she believed was the mishandling of her oldest son’s learning disability. When no local attorney would represent her, she went as far as Fort Worth to find a lawyer. He settled the dispute with the district in six hours.

“It is hard to get heard here,” Childress told me. Her words were slow and careful and her voice soft. “Power and money are against you. They don’t care about you when you’re alive and they don’t care about you when you die.”

Most blacks and Latinos came to Lubbock first to pick cotton, later, to work in the gins. They were a tiny minority, easily ignored by the city’s political power structure. A 1923 city ordinance established a “colored section” at what was then the far eastern edge of town. Declaring the presence of “negroes… and persons containing up to one-eighth negro blood” a civic emergency, the ordinance made it a crime for a black person to buy or rent property outside the established area, or for a white person to sell or lease it to them. The ordinance also established a $200 fine for black residents found outside this area after dark. “Their residence is dangerous to the health and pollutes the earth and atmosphere,” the ordinance asserted, although an exception was made for servants living in white homes.

Integration was a quiet affair in Lubbock. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act, “Colored Only” signs came down in public buildings, though they would crop up in private establishments for another decade. Well into the ’70s, the city bus station had two extra bathrooms. “They could say, ‘Nobody made you go in there,’ but everybody knew where they were supposed to go,” says Eddie Richardson, editor of Lubbock’s African-American newspaper, the Southwest Digest.

Before the city took over operation of the cemetery in 1948, minority communities were responsible for burying their own dead. A group called the Lubbock Civic and Social Organization handled the burials of black citizens, while most Latinos were buried by one of Lubbock’s Catholic churches. Blacks and Latinos were charged for burial services, but not for plots. Instead, they were buried in the style common for “paupers’ graves”—in rows, in the order in which they died. If the private burial organizations kept records, they never turned them over to the city, says Sam Copeland, who was the cemetery supervisor from 1998 to 2001. According to Copeland, the city claimed to have stopped burying people in the old back sections after assuming control of the cemetery. At the time, city staff cited concerns about the impossibility of locating many of the old graves. However, the designation “Old Colored Section” continued to appear in burial records for more than 30 years. Under the city’s operation, pauper burials were still the norm for black and Latino citizens. The exact location of those graves was not recorded. “I don’t believe anyone ever wrote it down,” Copeland says. “I think it was just assumed that it was the family’s responsibility.”

For years, the de facto segregation of the cemetery was scarcely challenged; few of Lubbock’s minority residents could afford more than a pauper’s grave anyway. The cemetery was fully integrated in 1979, when the city settled out of court with a prominent black attorney who sued for the right to bury his wife in the front of the cemetery, where the grass was. Shortly before the suit settled, the city cut down the row of cedar trees that had separated the white and minority sections for 50 years. Slowly, the city planted grass and tidied up the old back sections. It was during this tidying, in the ’80s, that many families first noticed their grave markers had disappeared. The city’s record keeping was even slower to change; records were eventually integrated, and precise descriptions of locations were common for almost all burials by the ’70s. But as late as 1985, there are a few burials for which “Old Colored Space” is still the only location given. Survey maps of the cemetery’s front sections show each and every grave. Maps of the back sections show only arrows pointing the way east.

Officially, the city has little to say about the lawsuit and no explanation of what, if anything, may have gone wrong. (The city’s formal answer to the suit, filed in the 237th District Court, denies the allegations, “each and every, all and singular.”) But those who have asked for help finding missing graves say city staff have told them that their memories are faulty, that they’re to blame for the loss because they didn’t put up permanent monuments, or that they’re altogether mistaken about which cemetery their loved ones are buried in.

Jeanette Livingston doesn’t remember her mother—she was barely two in 1943 when Wilma Allen died giving birth to Livingston’s sister Margaret—but she remembers her grave. The girls’ uncle took the girls to visit the plot every Sunday for 15 years. The grave had no headstone—the family couldn’t afford one—but they tried to keep the temporary marker supplied by the cemetery in good shape. “I close my eyes and I can see that grave,” Livingston says. “Even though I was little, I remember knowing it was just awful back there. The ground was full of broken glass and it smelled bad.”

Livingston made her last trip to the grave when she was 19, just before she left town for good. “I wanted things Lubbock could never give me,” Livingston says. “I wanted the house on the hill and the swimming pool. If I’d stayed in Lubbock, they’d have hung me. I went to say goodbye.” She would not visit the cemetery again until 2002, when she was in Lubbock for a family reunion. “I couldn’t wait to get there, and then it wasn’t there,” Livingston says. “It was grassed in, but no grave.”

Livingston went to the cemetery office, housed in a tiny stone building at the front of the park, and asked for help. The cemetery clerk couldn’t locate a record of Wilma Allen’s burial. Livingston asked the cemetery supervisor to come with her to the spot where the grave had been, and the two drove out to the back corner together. “You could blindfold me and I could take you to that grave. I know exactly where it was,” Livingston says. “He told me I must be making a mistake. He said ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ He was mean.”

Livingston went home to Mt. Vernon, Washington, but continued to query city and cemetery officials about the missing grave. When they began to hang up the phone on her, Livingston got online and looked up Lubbock attorneys. A few advised her to drop the matter. But when she called Steve Claus, he told her she had a case. She filed suit against the city in May. After the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal ran a story on the lawsuit, others began to contact Claus’ office with similar stories.

Hundreds of graves, like Allen’s, simply can’t be located from the city records. Worse, some gravesites may have been used more than once. Fred Gaytan says four strangers are buried on top of his father and baby sister, who died—along with his aunt and uncle—in a car accident in 1949. One of Gaytan’s uncles paid for the funerals, but the family could not afford headstones. For years, they found the graves using the temporary markers. After those deteriorated, they used familiar landmarks—two juniper trees, a gravel road, the names on nearby headstones. Then on one visit, about 20 years ago, Fred found a stone with an unfamiliar name on his father’s grave. Today, four headstones from the same family stretch across the plots Gaytan remembers as his father’s and sister’s. The cemetery has no record of the Gaytan burials.

Graves without headstones were common in the old cemetery. Many families simply couldn’t afford one—they left the city’s temporary marker up, or sometimes made their own from wood. But even graves that had stones are missing. When Melton Leyva buried his father in 1968, the family pulled together $1,200 to put up a marble angel on a five-foot-tall pedestal, he says. On a visit to the grave in the mid-eighties, Leyva found the stone was gone. When he asked for help, a cemetery employee pulled records that showed his father buried on what Leyva says is the wrong side of the section. Leyva insisted to staff that the grave had been further north, but they told him he was making a mistake. “I came out here a lot,” he told me. “I know where it is.” Either way, there’s no sign now of the $1,200 angel.

It was an hour before sunset, the day after the plaintiffs’ meeting, and I was leaving the cemetery. I pulled my car over by the front gate and was consulting my map when a woman in a windbreaker tapped on the window. “My parents recognized you from the meeting,” she said when I rolled it down. “They’re here about the missing graves.”

Their names were John and Maria Hernandez. Their English was halting, and my Spanish was worse, but they told me this: They were looking for their daughter, Linda. She died of pneumonia in 1964, just one year and eight days old. They couldn’t afford a stone. The temporary marker fell apart, year by year. They haven’t known where the grave was for 20 years. They had asked the cemetery off
ce for help years
go, but it was no good. I asked if we could try again.

We made a tense tableau in the tiny two-room office at first—the resentful family, the three wary cemetery staff, and the reporter with the tape recorder. “Well, of course,” cemetery clerk Molly Martinez said, when she understood what we wanted. “That’s what we do. We find people.”

Sylvia Chapa, the cemetery’s service coordinator, turned to the file cabinet behind her desk and pulled out the drawer with the H’s in it. She rifled through, drew out a yellowed index card, and handed it to John Hernandez. “Is this it?” It was. The card gave a section, a row, and a space number. Chapa and Martinez drove out with us to the indicated spot, and measured it out for us in long strides. The ground was soggy with melting snow, and squelched softly as we crossed it.

“This is it,” Martinez said, reaching a small, blank space of ground. “You can tell there was a grave here.” She pointed out the slight rise of the earth, the subtle change of color in the grass. “This is where she is.”

The Hernandez family looked down at the spot in silence.

“Obviously we can’t be completely sure,” Martinez went on. “But I guarantee you this is it. The only way to be 100 percent sure would be to dig her up and do a test.”

John translated this for Maria. She shook her head. “No, no,” she whispered. “No, no, no.” She was crying.

“We tried before to find her,” John said. “But they didn’t do nothing to help us. Just gave us a map.”

Martinez sniffed. “I’m sorry to hear that. Maybe it was someone new. Maybe they were confused. You can get turned around out here. It took me a long time before I could find my way around, before I could really tell somebody where a grave was and feel 100 percent sure. I’ve only been here 10 months. Sylvia’s only been here a few years. Everyone working here is brand new.”

John nodded. “It wasn’t you,” he said. “It was a white man. But they didn’t help us.” He took his wife’s hand. They talked together quietly for a minute, pointing out things they remembered: the name on a headstone, a nearby tree. “This is it,” he said, finally. “We’ll have to get a little bit of money together and buy her a stone.”

Maria nodded, her eyes wet. “Una angelita,” she said. “For the stone, an angel.”

Emily Pyle is an Austin-based writer.