Slave cemetery, chem plant at center of lawsuit
PLAQUEMINE- A slave cemetery dating back to the 1800's is caught in the middle of a legal fight in Iberville Parish.
Family members of Robert Taylor, the former slave who set up the cemetery in 1881, filed a lawsuit when they caught wind that a church was charging for burials. A chemical plant claimed it owned the land.
The cemetery sits feet away from Axiall Chemical Plant along River Road which was once Georgia Gulf. Sirens routinely blare through the cemetery grounds, disturbing the peace.
"It's so much noise, you can't have a peaceful visit," said Vivian Chiphe, a relative of Robert Taylor.
"I'm passionate about it because number one, these are my parents," said Janice Dickerson, another Taylor relation. "This is my mother, father and brother, uncles and grandparents. Everybody's buried back here."
The family believes the cemetery was set up as a "pauper" cemetery, where people who lived in the community could be buried for free. Recently Dickerson and Chiphe said they found out a nearby church was charging $600 for burials at the cemetery. The pair say their ancestors never set it up that way, and the Mount Zion Baptist Church No. 1 does not own the land.
"This is coming to an end," Chiphe said. "We will not tolerate being intimidated by them for $600."
Chiphe and Dickerson filed a lawsuit to block the church from charging people to be buried here. When they did, Axiall Chemical joined in saying it owned the property.
"Here, you can just go and say you own property," Dickerson said. "There are no laws that make anybody do any research to ensure whoever claims ownership truly owns the property."
Complicating matters even more, two people claim to have the deed for the property the cemetery sits on. One is the plant, the others are the original people who purchased the property. They filed their deed with the Iberville Parish Courthouse in 1881.
A judge recently ruled that the chemical plant owns the land. However, News 2's Investigative Unit uncovered the parish doesn't think the chemical plant or church owns the cemetery.
"The assessor has the property assessed to the Mount Zion Baptist Association," Deputy Clerk Amy Patin said. "The piece of property that is in question in the suit."
A yellowed deed still on file in the courthouse from 1881 is one document descendants of the slave point to as ownership. News 2 asked why the church was billing people to be buried on a property it does not own. Paperwork obtained by the Investigative Unit shows Shirley Oliver received a $600 check for a recent burial.
"I don't want to discuss anything, is that clear," Shirley Oliver said when News 2 asked to speak with her. "I don't want to discuss it at all."
When a family member died, Chiphe was shocked to learn the chemical company wrote a check for the burial fee to the church. A letter obtained by the Investigative Unit shows Axiall Corporation sent the check to Shirley Oliver. When we asked her where the money went, she got combative.
"They know what happened to it," Oliver said. "I'm not answering that!"
The family is puzzled why money is changing hands between the chemical company and the church. As this legal battle plays out in court, the slaves' ancestors plan to keep fighting.
"The black people buried here suffered untold indignities, hardships, brutalities in slavery, and Jim Crow. Now they can't rest in peace," Dickerson said.
A judge signed a ruling last week in favor of the plant as the owner of the property. The heirs of the slaves who set up the cemetery plan to appeal, filing paperwork Monday to put the judge's ruling on hold until a hearing can be held. Lawyers representing the plant also got involved, requesting the lawsuit which sparked this legal battle tossed out altogether.
Both the chemical company and heirs to the slaves want a judge to clear the matter up in a March 4 hearing.
A full statement from Axiall Corporation can be read here.