Dignity in Burial

As in most accommodations, burials for African Americans were also segregated. There were some cemeteries that would flat-out, not allow non-whites to be buried there, like Detroit’s Grand Lawn Cemetery, which regulated that “The cemetery is limited without exception to the use of the Caucasian Race.”Others allowed black burials, but would remove them to a separate, and oftentimes less habitable, part of the cemetery. All generally treated those patrons as less-than, giving them inconvenient hours for burial, exorbitant rates, and separate entrances.1

There were a few heavily publicized cases of cemetery segregation in Detroit. The first took place during one of the darkest moments of the Great Depression.

Like many companies, Ford was forced to lay off workers during the Great Depression. On March 7, 1932, a group of frustrated workers marched on the River Rouge Plant to give Henry Ford a list of demands, one of which included an end to racial discrimination. As they approached, Ford’s goons, as well as Dearborn Police, opened fire on the marchers, killing four. They also used heavy amounts of tear gas, which went on to kill another, 37-year-old Curtis Williams, the only black victim.

While the four Ford Hunger March martyrs were buried at Woodmere Cemetery, Williams was not allowed due to the color of his skin. Differing accounts tell of his ashes being spread either over Woodmere or over the Rouge Factory, but whatever the truth is, in 1992, headstones were added to the four graves, and in addition, a cenotaph was placed for Williams.2

George V. Nash
George V. Nash, veteran denied burial at White Chapel Cemetery in Troy. Courtesy of the Washington Post – Times Herald.

Another nationally publicized case occurred in 1960, when the burial of a WWI veteran name George Vincent Nash was stopped at White Chapel Cemetery in Troy, MI. While not in Detroit itself, the cemetery showcased the racial implications of white flight. White Chapel was proudly reserved for members of the Caucasian race. Nash was not African American, but Native American, and had been put in the ground before his funeral was stopped. He had purchased the plot in 1949 with no protest, and his wife, also Native American, had been buried without issue 6 years earlier.3

Likely because he was a veteran, there was an uproar in the national press. White Chapel stood by their policy that corpses must be at least 75% white to be buried there. Nash did not meet such a requirement, and representatives of White Chapel stated that those that were buried there had been buried knowing the exclusion was in place, and that to make an exception would leave them liable for suit from those other families. Ultimately, the American Legion purchased plots for Nash and his wife in Perry Mount Cemetery in Pontiac, and more than 300 people were there when he was finally buried with military honors.4

The disrespect people of color faced in the burial of their loved ones contributed to founding of a place where African Americans could be buried with dignity, the first such cemetery in Detroit. It was called Detroit Memorial Park.