Segregation in Texas Cemeteries Proves Hard to Undo

When Dorothy Barrera’s husband Pedro passed away in February 2016, she tried to have him buried in their local cemetery in the small town of Normanna, Texas. The local San Domingo Cemetery guarantees a plot to all Normanna residents, so Barrera thought it would be a simple process. But she quickly ran into trouble.

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Dorothy Barrera (Photo by Noam Hassenfeld/Latino USA)

Barrera was out with her caretaker, Amanda Brown, when she ran into Jimmy Bradford, the head of the cemetery board. When she inquired about burying her husband, Bradford replied: “Take him 15, 20 miles down the county road there. That’s where we bury the n** and Mexicans.”

Barrera reached out to the press, and Michael Gibson, a reporter for the ABC News affiliate in Corpus Christi, decided to follow up on the story. Gibson drove out to meet Barrera in Normanna, and together, they went to ask Bradford again about the cemetery restriction. Gibson brought a microphone and recorded Bradford’s response: “He wasn’t supposed to be buried there because he’s a Mexican, of Spanish descent, whatever you want to say. That’s what I told her—that’s what we’ve been doing.”

As Bradford refused to alter his stance, Barrera began contacting civil rights groups, which responded by organizing a protest outside the cemetery. Meanwhile, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, or MALDEF, took up the case and sued the cemetery board. They expected a long, drawn-out legal battle, but the defense quickly settled out of court.

This controversy prompted shock and outrage, but it’s not an isolated incident. Texas has a long history of segregation, which is tied to cemeteries. The first white settlers who came to Texas in the early 1800’s took note of the obvious differences between Anglo and Tejano cemeteries. They noted, “Rude crosses, placed along the Camino… were a common sight.” Tejanos used these crosses as memorials, and they had elaborate funeral processions and intricate cemetery decorations as well. According to Andres Tijerina, professor of history at Austin Community College, the settlers responded by banning or removing Tejano funeral homes in order to stop these practices. Ultimately, this caused Tejano cemeteries to lie unused as cities rose up around them. “There are unmarked cemeteries deep within almost every city of Texas that most people in Texas are not even aware of,” says Tijerina. “Between two major streets, a little dirt patch that people never bothered to mark as an old Mexican-American cemetery.”

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Santiago Ramirez’s tombstone (Photo by Noam Hassenfeld/Latino USA)

At the San Domingo cemetery itself in Normanna, Texas—where Dorothy Barrera was not allowed to bury her husband—there is a conspicuous symbol of this type of segregation. There are no tombstones with Latino surname inside the main, fenced-off area, and a lone tombstone sits just outside the fence. The fence turns so sharply at this grave that it actually cuts into the backside of the tombstone. “It’s almost as if the fence was built specifically to exclude this one tombstone which also happens to be the one tombstone with a Latino name,” says Marisa Bono, a lawyer with MALDEF. The tombstone belongs to a man named Santiago Ramirez, who passed away in 1910.

There have been high profile examples of segregated cemeteries before—such as the Longoria Affair in 1949—but mainly, segregated cemeteries are treated as a basic fact of life in Texas. When Bono asked Normanna residents about the “whites only policy” at the San Domingo Cemetery, she says they consistently responded with a variation on, “This is always how it’s been and this is always how it will be.”

Across Texas, many cities have what are called “Latin American Cemeteries,” which arose out of necessity, after Latinos were denied burial in white cemeteries. Other cities have cemeteries where different racial or ethnic parts are sectioned off, either by roads, fences, or other borders.

Oliver Cemetery map, Smithville, Texas (Via Carol Snyder, Smithville Heritage Society)

While these types of racial or ethnic restrictions are often simply implemented by word of mouth, there are still cemeteries across the state which actually have racially restrictive deeds on the books that have not been revoked. A deed for the Farmers Academy Cemetery in Titus County reads as follows: “The North half shall be deemed a free burial ground, and any white person may be buried therein without charge for a lot, provided that no negro person shall be buried in either part of the said cemetery.”

Page two of the Farmers Academy Cemetery deed in Titus County, Texas (via Titus County Clerk’s Office)

Racial restrictions like this are illegal both under the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and a Texas statute from 1989. However, until individuals challenge restrictions at a specific cemetery, a court won’t act to enforce the law. “It’s extremely common for laws on the books not to be followed on the ground,” says Gabriel Chin, a law professor at UC Davis. “The law on the books, even a civil rights statute that’s passed by Congress after the Civil War, is just a piece of paper and it has to be enforced by courts through orders, and those orders have to be carried out.”

Furthermore, though racial restrictions like the one at the Farmers Academy can’t hold up in court, many people don’t know that, and they have real effects. Says Chin, “They have no legal enforceability but nevertheless, people obey them.”

Even if cemeteries are challenged and the law is enforced, there is a separate reason cemetery segregation is difficult to undo: families often want to be buried together. If families have been buried in the same plot for generations, they often want to continue to be buried there.

Take the Oliver Cemetery in Smithville, for example (map above). Even though the cemetery is divided into three clear, racially based sections, Smithville Mayor Scott Saunders says that no “active” segregation is still going on at the Oliver Cemetery. Yet, if a Latino dies in present-day Smithville, she will likely want to be buried with her family members, even if that means being buried in the segregated section.

The San Domingo Cemetery has given Barrera permission to bury her husband there, but she still hasn’t, because she’s worried that in the racially charged atmosphere of Normanna, the grave might be defaced. Moreover, she doesn’t feel like San Domingo is a place where she can truly mourn her husband.

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Outside the San Domingo Cemetery in Normanna, Texas (Photo by Noam Hassenfeld/Latino USA)

It’s easy to look at a cemetery and see it as a relic—a place stuck in the past, reserved for loved ones who’ve passed away. In this sense, it might not be a shock to associate cemeteries with segregation. The past was segregated, and cemeteries are too.

Yet cemeteries aren’t just places stuck in history. They are living parts of our communities, and they represent some of our most deeply held values. We may desegregate cafe counters or water fountains, but at the end of the day, many Americans are still uncomfortable spending eternity underground next to a member of a different race.