Louisiana cemetery changes 'whites only' contract after Black sheriff's deputy denied burial

N'dea Yancey-Bragg, USA TODAY
·3 min read
Karla Semien, the deputy's widow, said she was told the cemetery was for "whites only" after she arrived with her multiracial family to bury her husband.
Karla Semien, the deputy's widow, said she was told the cemetery was for "whites only" after she arrived with her multiracial family to bury her husband.

A small Louisiana cemetery has changed its sales contracts after a Black sheriff's deputy was denied burial because of a provision that allowed only white people to be buried there.

The board of Oaklin Springs Cemetery held an emergency meeting Thursday to change the provision, which had been in the sales contracts since the cemetery was founded in the late 1950s, according to board president H. Creig Vizena. He said the board removed the word “white” from a line in the a contract that had said “for the burial of the remains of white human beings.”

Vizena said he first learned of the provision on Tuesday when a friend urged him to make things right after the family of Allen Parish Sheriff’s Deputy Darrell Semien was told he couldn't be buried in the cemetery near Oberlin because he was Black.

"I was devastated, but I also knew at the same time that I had to fix it," Vizena told USA TODAY.

Karla Semien, the deputy's widow, who is white, said she was told the cemetery was for "whites only" after she arrived with her multiracial family Tuesday. She said she was in disbelief, but the woman showed her the contract on a clipboard that stated it was for "white human beings only."

"All the kids were so upset and they were crying," she said. "I was shocked at first. It was like I couldn’t believe what I was hearing."

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Darrell Semien, 55, served 15 years as a police officer for the Reeves Police Department and Allen Parish Sheriff's Officer, Karla Semien said. The pair raised a blended multiracial family of seven children and were foster parents who cared for 72 children over 16 years.

He was diagnosed with cancer six years ago and found out Dec. 15 that it had returned. He was sent home for hospice care, where his family watched him round the clock until he died.

"He was just an all-around good guy," Semien said. "He loved life, he loved his family, he loved his children. We were his world, he was ours."

Semien said her husband chose Oaklin Springs Cemetery because it was close to their home and the police station. They now plan to bury him at a cemetery 15 miles away, but she said her family will always be reminded that he was denied the resting place he chose because of his race.

"It's like a punch in the gut," she said. "It hurt. It still hurts."

She shared her story on Facebook, where it attracted the attention of local and national media. Semien said that her community has been incredibly supportive and that she chose to speak out because it's what her husband would have done.

"Even in death he is still fixing things, changing things," she said. "That was something he really believed in and he instilled it in our kids. ... If I didn’t say anything, I would be failing him."

Vizena said that the woman who denied Semien a plot is his aunt, who is in her 80s, and that he relieved her of her duties on his way to meet with the Semien family. He said he offered the family one of his own plots in the 400-plot cemetery.

Semien turned him down and said the damage had already been done.

Vizena said the contract had never been changed because no people of color had asked to be buried there. He believes many other cemeteries and city ordinances probably contain segregationist language.

"I issue a challenge to everyone nationwide: Look at all of your charters, your bylaws your contracts. Take this verbiage out," he said. "We’ll never be where we need to be as a nation unless this is done. It's mind-boggling that this still exists."

Follow N'dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Louisiana cemetery changes contract after Black deputy denied burial