Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Michael Cala: Respect for the Dead, the Living, and Honoring the Blues

Michael Cala and the marker that helped restore
Grasmere music journalist Michael Cala deserves the utmost in recognition and respect from us all after initiating a campaign to mark the grave of blues singer Mamie Smith and realizing that helping the struggling caretakers of the entire burial ground was not outside the purview of his endeavor.  The campaign was so successful that he not only honored a legendary recording artist but also contributed thousands of dollars to the caretakers of the Frederick Douglass Memorial Park. "The cemetery is rather cash strapped," Cala admitted in one interview, revealing an inconvenient truth that extends much farther than the boundaries of the memorial park to neglected and abandoned African American burial grounds across the country.  "They don't have much money," Cala explained, "and what they wanted to do was...right headstones and foot stones that were moved by Hurricane Sandy."  It's difficult to argue with him regarding his decision to donate excess funds to the caretakers to help refurbish the burial ground.  Cemeteries are as much about respect for the living as they are about honoring the dead.  Michael Cala made his effort an inclusive one, and he provided an example for the rest of us to emulate in our everyday lives.

You can read more about the campaign and the dedication of the headstone of Mamie Smith here and here.  

It's difficult to get the mainstream media to cover similar campaigns to preserve abandoned African American burial grounds from behind the Magnolia Curtain in Mississippi, so please visit our website to learn more about our constant efforts to maintain historic abandoned cemeteries and markers of blues musicians.  

Currently, we need help to mark the grave of Bo Carter and preserve Nitta Yuma Cemetery.  You can view the video for our campaign here.

Brian Palmer makes the compelling case that "neglected black cemeteries deserve the same level of care that their Confederate counterparts get" in his recent article in the New York Times.  

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Warm Springs in the NBDEA

Several of the cemeteries we submitted to the National Burial Database of Enslaved Americans (NBDEA) were accepted and are now included in the report, "Memory & Landmarks: Report of the Burial Database Project of Enslaved Americans." Its hard to explain how difficult it is to dig up and compile evidence linking mostly unmarked burial grounds to the antebellum period. Not all submissions made it into this initial conglomeration, but Warm Springs CME Church Cemetery outside of Crystal Springs--the burial ground of blues singer Tommy Johnson--did make it into the report. It's now marked on county and state road maps and archived in the NBDEA. His ancestors settled in the community after fleeing the plantation of James Wilson, who committed suicide by wading into Copiah Creek. Wilson's headstone (left) stands in Old Crystal Springs Cemetery.

Please help us mark the grave of Bo Carter and preserve Nitta Yuma Cemetery

Click on the link below to view or download the document, which does not list it by name only city and religious affiliation.

Memory & Landmarks

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Fred McDowell Biography

"Shake Em On Down" TEASER from The Southern Documentary Project on Vimeo.


Wednesday, February 1, 2017: Opening Nights Performing Arts/Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, 7:30 PM ET
Thursday, February 2, 2017: North Central Louisiana Arts Council, Ruston, LA, 7:00 PM CT
Friday, February 3, 2017: Arts Council of Central Louisiana, Alexandria, LA, 7:00 PM CT
Monday, February 13, 2017: Tropic Cinema/Key West Film Society, Key West, FL, 6:30 PM ET
Tuesday, February 14, 2017: Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, GA, 7:00 PM ET
Thursday, February 16, 2017: Broward College Foundation, Davie, FL, 7:30 PM ET
Friday, February 17, 2017: Miami-Dade Co. Dept. of Cultural Affairs/South Miami-Dade Cultural Center, Cutler Bay, FL, 8:30 PM ET

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Joanne Fish - W.C. Handy Documentary Promo Page

Corporation Jeopardizes Future of the Pennington African Cemetery

By Angela Jacobs, Dec 20, 2016

Typically few, if any, people come to Pennington Borough’s Planning Board meetings, but seats were filled and tensions were high as attendees waited for the board’s ruling on whether to grant an extension of time for J&M Schragger LLC to file a Minor Subdivision Deed on its 417 South Main Street property. Though the request was more of a formality, as Municipal Land Use Law NJSA 40:55D-21 mandates the extension, several supporters of the Pennington African Cemetery Association (PACA) spoke out against ruling in favor of the corporation. In the end, a six month extension was granted.
Historical Context
In 1863, African American residents of Pennington purchased land adjacent (serving as a long driveway) and a large plot of land behind 417 S. Main Street. The purpose of the land was to create access to a cemetery they built for African American residents who were prohibited from burial at white cemeteries. Though the Pennington African Cemetery (PAC) is no longer an active burial ground, it is revered by its volunteers who are members of the Pennington African Cemetery Association (PACA) and who maintain the fenced-in area and its driveway. For at least the past 60 years, owners of the home at 417 S. Main St. had been informally allowed to use the driveway in order to park behind their home. In return, the homeowners cut the cemetery’s grass and removed snow from PAC’s driveway.

The Issue
John and Michelle Schragger (owners of J&M Schragger, LLC) purchased the home at 417 S. Main St. for their own residence, in April 2016, intending to then subdivide the back half of the lot, which borders PAC, for development and resale. Both lots would require use of PAC’s driveway in order to park behind the homes, so a formal easement, allowing its use, was sought from the cemetery association. At the June Planning/Zoning Board meeting, the board approved the applicant’s request for a minor subdivision, with the requirement that a legal easement be obtained from the cemetery association. With easement in hand, the applicant would then be required to file a minor subdivision deed, 190 days from June 8th. 

Though efforts were made to agree on easement terms, Angela Witcher, on behalf of PACA, notified the applicant on July 7th that they would not grant an easement. In response, on August 11th, the applicant filed a lawsuit against PACA, as well as individually against sisters, Angela and Susan Witcher. The suit is scheduled for hearing at Mercer County’s Superior Court in March. At the December Planning/Zoning Board meeting, just shy of the 190 day deadline, the applicant requested an extension to file the minor subdivision deed in hopes that they are granted the easement in March.

Angela Witcher speaks to planning board
The Problems

At the May Planning/Zoning Board meeting, Susan Witcher, a member of the Pennington African Cemetery Association, happened to be in attendance and was asked to testify on the status of the easement. At the December meeting, her sister Angela testified that Susan was unprepared to speak for PACA and unfamiliar with the legalities being discussed. Susan’s testimony was pivotal in the board’s decision to grant the applicant’s application for the subdivision. 

PACA has no formal leadership. Over the course of the past eight months, questions of who has the authority to speak for the organization and sign legal documents have repeatedly been asked without clear answer. Though PACA retained a lawyer in the spring to guide them through that issue, the attorney apparently did not fully represent PACA’s wishes in regards to discussions about the easement with the applicant. Instead, the attorney drafted a letter outlining general terms needed for an easement to be possible in the future and asked for money upfront, something like a promise ring. According to Angela Witcher’s December testimony, PACA never considered granting an easement. 

The applicant claims that its corporation purchased the property based on assumptions made that an easement was forthcoming, and proceeded with the purchase with the aim of subdividing the lot.


While it may be unfortunate that the applicant believed they would be granted an easement, PACA asserts that there was no indication on the part of PACA that they would be amenable to one. Events did transpire that led them in this thinking. Instead of parting ways, albeit unhappily, the applicant seeks compensation for lost wages on their potential investment property in upwards of $20,000. If damages are awarded, Witcher sisters indicate that this would most likely bankrupt them personally and make any upkeep of the cemetery impossible. 

The issue is not merely about a piece of paper, the easement, but about Pennington’s African American community feeling unheard and unprepared to fight the legal system, according to many vocal members of the community. PACA had an informal relationship with the prior neighboring property owners, allowing them to use their driveway to access the back of their lot. However, the association adamantly denies an interest in waiving legal rights of their driveway. If an easement is forced by the courts, the sisters and cemetery would potentially have to obtain a lawyer for every facet of the litigation, resulting in a high cost to PACA, an organization that has very little resources. 

To help with PACA’s many needed projects (i.e. stabilizing leaning and overturned headstones, leveling sunken graves, and placing headstones on unmarked graves) or contribute to their legal defense, go to PACA’s GoFundMe page.

Disgraced Cemetery Manager to Pay $15,000 in Restitution for Nine Headstones

By Jennifer Waugh

JACKSONVILLE, FL - The former manager of a local cemetery has agreed to pay back money he is accused of taking from some of his customers for services never provided. Nader John Rayan’s attorney told a judge Tuesday morning that his client will pay $15,000 in restitution to nine families.

The families accused Rayan of taking money for grave markers that were never delivered.

Rayan promised to repay the money by Feb. 2.

It was the latest development in an I-TEAM investigation that led to Rayan's arrest last July. News4Jax exposed dozens of complaints against Rayan and his wife, who owned Beaches Memorial Park and First Coast Funeral Home in Atlantic Beach.

Rayan is charged with 15 counts of grand theft. As a result of our stories, his wife, Amanda Rayan, was also arrested last August.

Amanda Rayan has yet to be arraigned on 47 charges. Prosecutors said she falsified names on dozens of death certificates.

Friday, December 30, 2016