Plunging into the bureaucracy

Dear Mr. Dixon and Mir. Scott,

My name is Ryan Whirty. I’m a local freelance journalist, researcher and historian who is working on a project to locate and hopefully place grave markers on the graves of two former segregation-era African-American baseball players, one of which is buried in Holt Cemetery and the other in Carrollton Cemetery.

I was wondering if I could speak with you regarding my project, as well as the budget for the cemeteries line item, the process for upkeep and improvement, and the possibility of gathering a group of local volunteers to work on these players’ graves.

I am quite disheartened by the deplorable condition in which these cemeteries stand and the apparent lack of concern for the final resting places of thousands of deceased city residents.

I would like to move forward with giving these two local baseball legends the dignity in death they have so far been denied. Ideally, I would like the city’s help or advice for this project, but if not, I will move forward on my own to provide a service that no one else, including city officials, cares to provide.

Below are a couple blog posts I’ve written about this situation. Thank you very much, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Ryan

The City of New Orleans owns seven cemeteries within its limits – Carrollton No. 1, Carrollton No. 2, Holt, Indigent, Valence, Lafayette No. 1 and Lafayette No. 2 – which are scattered throughout the city, cover a total of XXXXXX acres, and include roughly XXXXXXX interments total. (Those ugly XXXXXXXs are meant to be in there — I’m currently trying to find out the info because it might further illuminate the situation. I have a couple other queries out there, too.)

In 2014, the city spent nearly $770,000 on those four cemeteries for upkeep and current burials. However, a year later, funding for the cemeteries plummeted to just $170,500, a massive 79-percent drop.

This year’s city budget allots a little bit more than in 2015 – about $126,000 – but that’s still only roughly $XXX per grave. According to the city’s 2016 budget book, New Orleans’ public cemeteries have just one full-time employee to care for them, a position simply tabbed a “laborer.” Note, however, that below, I post an email from a staffer at Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office that offers slightly different numbers. But I’ll get to that.

The cemeteries line in the budget falls under the Department of Property Management, whose total budget allotment for 2016 stands at just more than $9 million, which means the cemeteries paltry funding level of about $126,000 takes up just 1.4 percent of the DPM budget for 2016. Compared to the entire city budget of just over $1 billion, the care given to the city’s four cemeteries is a drop in Lake Pontchartrain.

Why is that? That’s quite a good question, one for which I’ve been trying to find an adequate answer. (More on that a bit further down.) But it might have something to do with the fact that much of the ground included in the quartet of cemeteries comprises potter’s fields, or sections reserved for the city’s poor and indigent – people who have no financial means to afford a proper burial, and neither do their families.

The result is that the dead are crammed into small family plots in graves that hold multiple relatives and are literally bumping up against each other. Very few decorations adorn the graves, and many of the stone markers are so old an unattended that the writing has either faded or been completely obscured by dirt, mold or other icky stuff. In fact, mud is a common surrounding for these forgotten people.

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John Bissant

However, that’s a best case scenario. In many potter’s fields, the recently deceased are, for all intents and purposes, basically dumped into the ground anywhere there’s a spot. No records are kept, no burial stones or markers are placed, no diagrams or plot maps are drawn up, and virtually no maintenance is done. Grass can be knee high, and vegetation is frequently so wild and unkempt that it’s hard to even tell whether you’re in a cemetery or in an open, grassy meadow.

These are the famed, Gothic “Cities of the Dead” – New Orleans’ many cemeteries that feature rows and rows and acres and acres or ornate, majestic stone mausoleums, somber obelisks and statues of the Virgin Mary.

No, populating Holt, Carrollton, Indigent and the other city-owned cemeteries are often the final remains of invisible men and women in society, people who, for the city’s more well off, just don’t matter. Well, beyond mowing the lawns, building the houses and serving the steaks to New Orleans’ upper classes, I mean.

So why are the public burial grounds virtually ignored? Because, well, no one gives a damn about the lost generations buried there.

It also shouldn’t be surprising that the majority of these anonymous graves and stark, weeded plots hold the remains of the city’s African-American population. From the days of slavery, through Reconstruction, into Jim Crow and even through the Civil Rights era and ending today, the families of possibly millions of poor blacks had to see their loved ones lowered into ragtag graves dug by workers – most, of course, black themselves – hired (or not paid at all) by the city or its antecedent municipalities to do several such tasks every day. And that’s assuming the newly dead even had any family at all to care enough – or to have the means or wherewithal or ability – to attend the cursory burial rites.

Thus, perhaps, the fates of NOLA Negro Leaguers John Bissant and Lloyd “Ducky” Davenport, both of whom appear to have ended up like their African-American peers, family, friends and compatriots in New Orleans – hidden and ignored in unmarked graves.

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Ducky Davenport

And, just like the Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project does nationally and just how a small group of us here in NOLA and Texas worked to buy and install a grave marker for legendary local Negro Leagues manager Wesley Barrow, I want to see what we can do to rectify the tragedies of these two players’ hopeless post-mortem fates.

Davenport is interred in Holt Cemetery, a situation I tried to investigate last year. Unfortunately, while I spent a good deal of time and resources on the effort, I was unfortunately unable to speak to a living descendant. I visited Holt Cemetery to scope out the facility, but I was instantly dismayed by the apparent impossibility of the needle-in-a-haystack task.

Then there’s Bissant, whose final resting place is in Carrollton Cemetery, only a few blocks from Tulane University. Because of Carrollton’s proximity to the university – which offers several phenomenal historical research resources like the Amistad Research Center and the Louisiana Research Collection – lately I’ve focused on Bissant’s grave. The process has been somewhat more productive than my inquiry into Davenport’s interment, but it’s still been trying and tedious.

I’ve kind of figured out a four-pronged approach to this: One, hit the books, files and databases to do research into the players’ lives and families to try to find a living descendant who could help; two, try to gather together some local friends who would be interested in helping me with this; three, attempting to get the attention of the local media (which is quite difficult during Saints and LSU season); and four, delving into the illustrious, arcane nooks and crannies of the City of New Orleans government bureaucracy.

This post, as signaled by the previous paragraphs here, is about my recent inquiries into local officials and civic employees. So let’s go the governmental way …

First off, here’s what the 2016 city budget (referenced above) says about the administration of the civic cemeteries:

“Facilities Maintenance: The Facilities Administration operates public facilities for charge, which provides space for meetings, celebrations, the performing arts, services for the elderly/indigent, and burial of the dead. The aspect of fee and rent collection differentiates this program from Facilities Maintenance. However, the activities are based on the City Charter, and include repair and maintenance. Unit Names: Multi-service Centers, Real Estate and Records, Gallier Hall, Cemeteries, and Cultural Center.”

That paragraph appears to state that the city, through its Department of Property Management, does indeed charge residents for the burial of the recently passed in the four cemeteries. While they’re public property, they ain’t free.

At this point, I should allude to the fact that in a prior journalism life, I was an investigative reporter for several newspapers, both daily and weekly. I wrote extensively about local governments and companies and all the business (both clean and filthy) that took place amongst and within them.

But I dumped that stuff after becoming thoroughly burned out on and fed up with all the nastiness, grime and duplicity I encountered and wrote about while doing that, and I eventually fled to and settled in historical journalism, particularly baseball and Negro Leagues history.

And, yep, I’m quite content, thank you. Good riddance to ickiness. Alas, like a former two-pack-a-day smoker who occasionally feels the overwhelming itch for a breath or two of nicotine, every once in a while I do miss all that government and politics stuff, and I long – very infrequently – to get back into it.

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A grave in the Bissant family plot

This subject right here – the dilapidated state of the graves of many of New Orleans’ Negro Leagues heroes – is a subject that more than satisfies that craving. Hence this post, and all the others like it that I have already written and (hopefully) will write.

I started this in earnest last month, when I visited what I believe is the final resting place of John Bissant. I then called the office of New Orleans City Councilwoman Susan Guidry, whose district includes Carrollton Cemetery. I spoke with a very friendly, seemingly enthusiastic staff aide, who encouraged me to send a detailed email regarding my interests and inquiries.

Which I did. Three weeks ago.

Then I followed up with another email a week later.

Then last week I followed up with a call, another email and another call.

Wasn’t able to reach anyone or get anyone to call me back.

So last week I decided to widen my net and contact other city departments. One result was the email letter I copied at the beginning of this post. I sent it to the Department of Property Management Facilities Maintenance Administrator John Scott and DPM Facilities Administrator Ronald Dixon.

I haven’t heard back from them yet, although that’s somewhat understandable, because mid-level bureaucrats in a byzantine municipal administration frequently aren’t allowed to talk to the media without “permission,” or they just ignore the squeaky wheel and hope it stops on its own.

But the Mayor’s Office … they CAN respond to me. So I emailed a similar letter to Landrieu’s office, and his press secretary, C. Hayne Rainey, wrote me back yesterday, which was a pleasant surprised. Here’s Rainey’s message, with slightly different numbers than I found in this year’s city budget:

“This year, the City budgeted $100,000 to maintain the City’s seven cemeteries (Holt, Valence, Lafayette #1 & #2, Carrollton #1 & #2 and Indigent cemeteries). Of those seven, two are considered indigent (Holt and Indigent) and the remaining five consist of privately owned graves. While the City maintains the grounds through grass cutting and debris removal, the City relies on families to maintain their individually owned lots.

“In 2013, the City performed capital improvements at the Carrollton and Holt cemeteries; including new fencing, new lighting and signage as well as new or renovated cottages at these sites and improved drainage.

“We were able to determine that Mr. Bissant was buried on April, 8. 2006 in Carrollton Cemetery in Lot 4539/ Section A. Unfortunately, many records were lost as a result of Hurricane Katrina and at this time, no records have been located identifying the exact location of Mr. Davenport’s burial in Holt Cemetery in 1985.”

Rainey’s email provides a slew of answers, although they might not be the encouraging ones I was praying for. I already knew Bissant’s burial information, but I’m extremely disheartened to learn that, thanks to Katrina, there’s probably no way we can ever find Ducky Davenport’s grave.

So for now, maybe I’ll try to focus on John Bissant’s grave, and Rainey’s letter contained a flicker of hope – although the graves in Carrollton are owned privately (and therefore not kept up by the city itself, per se – individual families, i.e. the owners of the plots, are allowed and, indeed, encouraged to perform maintenance.

So, well, all I need to do is find a living relative of John Bissant. No problem. Maybe no problem.

I’ll conclude with a short conversation I had a couple weeks ago with a staffer in the city’s cemeteries office. Despite being swamped with their own work, they took the time to answer some of my queries as well as they could. (I use the pronoun “they” because I don’t want to identify the gender and, as a result, reveal their identity.)

I asked them if members of the one family could be buried in the same grave, and they said it’s “definitely possible,” with newly passed family members being interred, on average, about once every three years.

They said it’s not uncommon to see family members tending to their loved ones’ graves in Carrollton, for example. “People gather for their own people,” they said.

But, I then asked, what about a person outside the family – like a member of the public or other interested volunteer – maybe stepping in to help, like I’d want to do with John Bissant and his kin?

“You can,” they said, “but you need permission from the family in writing.”

So, alas, we’re back to trying to track down a living family member of John Bissant. Sigh.

My next few posts about Bissant – which will hopefully come halfway soon – will zero in on that search, as well as hopefully highlighting Bissant’s baseball career here in NOLA, before and after he made the big time with the Chicago American Giants.

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Questionable Trump ad

Apparently WordPress is putting ads on members’ blogs in order to keep the service free.

Which is fine with me, I suppose, but for some reason WordPress has plastered a Trump ad on mine.

I just want to stress that I did not choose this ad, and I in no way endorse it or Trump.

I’m working on getting a different, non-political ad on there.

I very much apologize for the ad, and I hope it hasn’t deterred anyone from coming back to this blog!

Where do the blues and baseball intersect?

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Crush Holloway

Almost 15 years ago, while I was a grad student at IU and (at the time) researching and writing about the blues – my absolute favorite type of tunes – I traversed northwest Mississippi and southeast Arkansas visiting the graves of five legendary bluesmen.

Those five were Elmore James (buried at Newport Missionary Baptist Church in Ebenezer, Miss.), Mississippi John Hurt (a family cemetery tucked away in his hometown of Avalon, which for all intents and purposes is a dead town now), Sonny Boy Williamson II (Whitfield Baptist Church, Tutwiler, Miss.), Albert King (Paradise Gardens Cemetery, Edmondson, Ark.) and Charley Patton (Holly Ridge Cemetery, Holly Ridge, Miss.).

While pursuing the ghosts of greats, I took notes and did interviews at every stop, with the intention of turning the experience into a book, a book chapter or a long essay.

It didn’t turn out that way, of course. The project fell by the wayside after I graduated from IU, consigned to the ever-growing dustbin of starry-eyed, abandoned and forgotten projects from the last 21 years of my life. (That list, naturally, includes probably half a dozen incomplete forays into literary journalism concerning various Negro Leagues topics, a fact that I might discuss in a later post.)

I did manage to turn my aborted travelogue into a presentation at the annual Delta Symposium at Arkansas State, but even that was somewhat pulled out of my arse – I essentially just winged it and depended on my immense personal charm and charisma to get me through.

I also wrote a really good article about the John Hurt leg of my trip for Blues Revue magazine, and I managed to crank out a personal essay/narrative about my time and investigations at Holly Ridge.

However, I’ve lost the text to that piece, as well as the entirety of my notes and files from the project, a situation is, to say the least, crushing and deflating. Perhaps all that stuff will turn up when I move next, but if not, it’s probably gone, lost into the vapors of my stunted career goals.

Why do I bring all this up? Because recently, I’ve been pondering the connection between music and segregation-era black baseball. Especially during the years before the integration of the national pastime, at a time when aspiring African-American hardballers simply couldn’t make ends meet as a full-time player, music could have been a secondary source of income for them.

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T-Bone Walker

Now, there’s no question that in the country’s urban areas where blues and R&B thrived – Kansas City, Chicago, New York, Memphis, Indianapolis, New Orleans – Negro Leaguers and black music stars of the day intermingled and developed lasting friendships and a sort of financial symbiosis.

After playing a game in one of those cities – and other burgs, like Newark, Pittsburgh and Detroit – Satch, Josh and other baseball stars hit the Crawford Grille or the Paseo Ballroom or the Apollo or the 708 Club to take in concerts by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, T-Bone Walker, Leroy Carr, Bessie Smith and other musical luminaries, and the baseballers brought with them to the clubs and speakeasies a slew of local residents who had attended the game and wanted a chance to meet their hardball heroes.

That connection has been fairly well chronicled and illuminated by numerous researchers, in the fields of both historical research and artistic creation, and rightfully so. For example, Whitman College Professor of Music David Glenn married baseball and jazz in his critically acclaimed composition, “National Pastime.” And, as celebrated scholar, author, and music and baseball fan Gerald Early once famously said:

“There are only three things that America will be remembered for 2000 years from now when they study this civilization: The Constitution, jazz music and baseball. These are the three most beautiful things this culture’s ever created.”

There’s a reason that the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum are right across from each other in Kansas City’s legendary 18th and Vine District.

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Gerald Early

But the music discussed so far is (or was) pretty much all urban jazz, blues and R&B, with big bands or swing blues combos or other formats facilitated by a populated region with ready access to the resources – manpower (and womanpower) and electricity and grand pianos and massive venues – necessary for that brand of soulful melodies.

What seems to have been somewhat overlooked, though, is any possible link between blackball and rural, country blues – which happens to be my favorite kind of blues. Almost the entirety of this genre is based in either the acoustic guitar, harmonica or a combination of the two, with progenitors and seminal figures like Patton, Hurt, Tommy Johnson, Robert Johnson, Son House, Blind Blake, Leadbelly, Memphis Minnie, Skip James, Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell (yep, there’s a pattern there), and even Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf in their early days. There were also famed duos, like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. (Instead of tediously giving links to each of these musicians named, I’ll direct you to Allmusic, a fantastic online database/encyclopedia/compendium of just about every musician who ever recorded. Just go to the homepage and type a name in search.)

These cats (and a few chicks) were often hoboes and itinerant ramblers, criss-crossing the rural South, which for decades was centered economically on massive plantations owned by rich white businessmen and populated by countless (often black) poor sharecroppers in what amounted to a 19th– and 20th-century feudal system. In fact, many of the legends of country blues were born and raised on plantations, and they bolstered their income by occasionally returning to the plantation system. The musicians played as many garden parties, juke joints and rent parties as they could to eke out something resembling a living.

But many Negro Leaguers also sprang from the rural Southern plantation system that birthed many a blues artist, one factor that might have bonded baseballers and musicians, at least in spirit. For example, fearless (often nasty) baserunner Crush Holloway, who was raised on a plantation in the Waco, Texas, area, told author John Holway for the latter’s book, “Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues”:

“I loved baseball. Out in them cotton fields I used to take a broomstick and took a whole pile of little rocks and hit. Imagination: That was a big deal. I’d hit a home run or a pop-up. Pop said, “If you don’t come in here, boy … out there in that dark.’ Just hitting those pebbles, you know? Imagination.

“Don’t tell me about working those cotton fields! My daddy had me out there early in the morning, getting them cows and things up. At sunrise we’d be in the field plowing. Oh that was big cotton – that was producing things down there then. Cotton and corn, wheat, all that stuff. …”

Likewise, baseball frequently became a focal point of plantation life, beginning with slave games on antebellum plantations and running through the employees and of ans sharecroppers on plantations who used the sport as exercise, recreation and entertainment, both for themselves and white audiences.

In fact, it was one of these situations from which came the earliest known film footage of African Americans playing baseball anywhere in the country – in 2014, University of Georgia researchers announced their discovery of such a film on the Pebble Hill Planation in Thomasville, Ga., dating to 1919.

The find caused a flurry of giddiness among scholars and enthusiasts of Negro and colored baseball who are constantly searching for such obscure gems. One of my SABR mentors, Dr. Leslie Heaphy, told the Thomasville (Ga.) Times-Enterprise:

“There is still so much of the story of black baseball to be found and examined for what it can tell us about baseball, African-American culture and American society. The footage from Pebble Hill shows us that we should not give up on finding other documents and materials that are still out there, waiting to be discovered.”

As is well known, the South at the time was blanketed by oppressive Jim Crow regimes, in which lynchings of African Americans happened almost weekly and the iron fist of segregation was rigidly enforced. Of course, Jim Crow thrived in Southern urban areas, but it was in “the country” and smaller towns where angry, violent mobs were allowed to storm local jail cells and where a boss on a levee construction crew could shoot an “insolent” Negro worker and have the body buried in the very levee the dead man helped to erect.

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Bukka White

Meanwhile, in the socioeconomic reality of the early-20th-century rural South, countless amateur, club and semipro blackball teams emerged, some thriving for many years, many coming and going within the span of a single summer. While fully professional city teams like the Birmingham Black Barons, Atlanta Black Crackers, Memphis Red Sox, Nashville Elite Giants and New Orleans Black Pelicans existed over a span of decades, just about any small Southern hamlet with a significant African-American population scraped up a blackball team that composed of players and managers who frequently played for little more than a love for the game.

So, lately, this has been my question: Did any of these early country blues greats, especially those in the Mississippi Delta, play baseball on some level? Did they manage or even own teams? Or did they at least have some close connection to Negro hardball?

Those are questions I’m hoping to try to answer, or at least explore, over the next few months, with particular attention paid, at least initially, to two famed bluesmen – Bukka White and Robert Petway.