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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One thought on “Plunging into the bureaucracy

  1. Slogging through the bureaucratic mud? That’s a tough go. Keep up the good work. We have barely begun to deal with “race” in this country. Never think that what you are doing is small or unimportant. It is very significant and deserves a wider audience.

    I would also note that your thoughts about the intersection of delta blues and baseball is fascinating. Although certainly not as extensive (or purposeful) as your trip to the graves of various bluesmen, I have spent some time driving through the delta when I was in law school (LSU) and have some minimal knowledge about that music. It has for many years occurred to me that the great baseball novel/screeplay/history has yet to be written and likely would involve that very intersection of blues and baseball. I hope you find your notes.

    Gary Growe
    LSU Law
    Class of 1975

    Like

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