Let Us Lift Our Memorials Above Ground


Flat gravestones are sinking into the ground in Section S of Westwood Cemetery.

On September 8, I delivered a second statement to the Oberlin City Council regarding a troubling situation at Westwood cemetery. I tried in May, during a previous City Council meeting, to politely broach the subject but was not taken seriously. The following recreates the essence of my recent statement:

I am calling in again out of frustration and sadness regarding Section S of Westwood cemetery. Not only are the flat-only gravestones sinking into the swampy Oberlin earth, but they are also essentially desecrated by repeatedly being run over by lawn mowers — leaving them covered in tracks, debris, and mud. It’s disgraceful.

But what is worse is that many Oberlin residents were deceived into purchasing plots in that section without information regarding its restrictions that forbid upright gravestones. I have so far contacted other families who have told me they were never told about the restrictions when they purchased their plots — and all of them are African-Americans. In fact, a cursory review of that section seems to indicate that up to 90% of the graves there are of African-Americans.

I know that when my mother bought three plots, she was never told about the restrictions against upright gravestones. Another example comes from Ms. Lilli Faye Taylor, who is 84 and lives in Oberlin, and has given me permission to speak on her behalf. She also was never told that this section in which she bought her plots — one for her and one for her husband — had these restrictions. She says that she can’t even find her husband’s grave anymore because the stone has sunk so far into the ground. She never wanted a flat gravestone for her and her husband’s graves. When snow covers the cemetery grounds, no one can find the graves of their loved ones in Section S.

It is clear to me, Ms. Taylor, and others that African-Americans in particular were deceptively steered into that section. That is why I am saddened. It has been a tradition since 1619 to treat us differently. To consider us as the “other” and therefore not afford us the same respect and consideration as other Americans. Our histories have too often been erased over the past 400 years. Millions of our ancestors will forever remain nameless. Oberlin has a proud history of being better. And yet our gravestones in Section S are sinking into the ground, obscuring the names of those who lived and died here.

So when the current City Manager called me to say that there was nothing that could be done because, and I quote, “It is our tradition,” it felt like yet another betrayal. First, the “our” in his statement certainly doesn’t include me, Ms. Taylor, or the others that I have contacted. Second, I am not sure what “tradition” he was referring to, but bad traditions need to be changed.

We are your neighbors who love this town and the people in it. We simply want equality in life and in death. We call again on the City Council to lift restrictions that forbid upright gravestones in Section S of Westwood cemetery so that we can finally lift our memorials above ground to preserve our names for posterity.