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Subject: [LA-CEMETERY-PRESERVATION] Sweet Olive Cemetery, Baton Rouge,Louisiana - Newspaper Articles in Archive
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Date: Sun, 2 Jun 2002 10:55:18 EDT

Sweet Olive backer Matthews dies


Advocate staff writer

Fred C. Matthews Jr., a longtime Baton Rouge resident and

president of the Sweet Olive Cemetery Association, died


He was 95.

Matthews was known around Baton Rouge for his work on the

Sweet Olive Cemetery, the oldest cemetery for black residents

in Baton Rouge, as well as his efforts to clean up


"He was a character," said Elizabeth "Boo" Thomas, executive

director of Plan Baton Rouge, who knew Matthews for about

nine years. "He'd talk your ear off."

Several people described Matthews as a "giant" in south Baton


"He left his mark in the south Baton Rouge community," said

Metro Councilwoman Lorri Burgess, who knew Matthews her

entire life.

Matthews worked in the lab refinery of what is the ExxonMobil

plant for 38 years, when the company was known as Esso, one

of his sons, Fred C. Matthews III, said.

At the plant, Matthews organized employee safety seminars,

tours of the facility and company picnics, his son said.

"Those are some of my fondest memories of him, doing the

company picnics," the younger Matthews said.

Matthews founded the Sweet Olive Cemetery Association with

his late wife, Vivian, in early 1974.

They took an interest in the cemetery, on 22nd Street between

North Boulevard and Louisiana Avenue, after seeing it in poor


Since that time, he organized cleanups, fund-raisers and

generally oversaw the caretaking, repair and upkeep of the


"He was so sharp and so active about the Sweet Olive

project," Thomas said. "It was a delight to work with him."

Perry Franklin, executive director of Mid-City Redevelopment

Alliance, said Sweet Olive Cemetery was only part of

Matthews' legacy.

The Sweet Olive project, like many things, was a labor of

love for Matthews, his son said.

"He was a man for now," his son said. "He was a special

person in many ways."

Matthews could tell stories about great-grandparents to their

great-grandchildren, Franklin said.

"The stories he's telling me about life are the same stories

he told my dad," Franklin said. "If I can live my life a

third as good as he lived his, I'd be a happy man."

No matter what project Matthews took on, he always went at it

full-bore, Thomas said. "He really tried to uncover any

possible avenue of funding and support he could," Thomas

said. "I'll miss him."

Burgess said Matthews always gave her solid advice about the

community. Burgess said she became involved with Sweet Olive

Cemetery at Matthews' behest.

"That's the work I'll have to do now," Burgess said. "That's

the only way I can think to honor him, to complete the work

he asked me to do."

Arrangements are pending at Rhodes United Fidelity Funeral

Home in Baton Rouge.

Matthews is survived by three children, sons John Matthews,

Matthews III and a daughter, Evelyn Matthews Baker.

Published on 10/29/01

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Resting in peace

Group has worked for years to preserve historic Sweet Olive



Advocate staff writer

Advocate staff photo by Travis Spradling

Fred C. Matthews Jr. tends to the grave of the Rev.

Washington Monroe Taylor, one of the state's most prominent

African Baptist ministers.

Tucked away in a quiet section of South 22nd Street between

North Boulevard and Louisiana Avenue is what should be a

treasure trove of black history. Sweet Olive Cemetery, the

oldest black cemetery in Baton Rouge, is the final resting

place of thousands of black citizens, many from ordinary

walks of life as well as others who achieved great prominence

in their community. To members of the black community,

especially those whose roots in the area go back generations,

Sweet Olive is sacred ground.

The tragedy is that so much of the history of Sweet Olive and

those buried there is lost forever. Nobody knows how Sweet

Olive got its name, nor does anyone know for sure the names

of most of the people buried there. No one really knows how

old the 5.5-acre cemetery is, since most of the graves are


A sign at the front dates it to around 1850. Official records

begin in 1898, when two benevolent societies began ownership

and maintenance of the property. However, family members of

those buried there say that the cemetery is more than 200

years old.

A century ago, the location of Sweet Olive was on the

outskirts of Baton Rouge. Now it is in the heart of Mid City.

In the days of slavery, blacks who lived and worked on

plantations were generally buried in plantation graveyards.

After the Civil War, most of the old graveyards were

abandoned. Black churches set up benevolent societies to care

for the sick and needy and to aid families in times of death.

Who originally established Sweet Olive is not known. However,

records indicate that two benevolent societies, the Society

of Sons and Daughters of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church and

the Society of the First African Baptist Church, owned and

maintained the cemetery from 1898 until 1912, when the

cemetery property was divided between the two societies.

For as long as anyone can remember, Sweet Olive has looked

very much like a New Orleans cemetery. The majority of the

graves are concrete vaults about 2 feet high. However, these

vaults are not the earliest graves. They actually cover the

earliest graves.

"In the early years, we were burying 6 feet in (the ground)

-- in wood coffins," said 95-year-old Fred C. Matthews Jr.,

president of the Sweet Olive Cemetery Association, which has

overseen the cemetery since 1974.

The original graves generally had no headstones, and as other

family members died, their remains were buried on top of

those already buried. As a result, the earliest graves in

Sweet Olive were almost all unmarked.

"Eighty-five percent of the graves have no headstones, no

kind of marker," Matthews said.

By the early 1970s, the two burial societies, which still

owned the cemetery, no longer had the financial means to

maintain it. The Negro Safety Association at Exxon Refinery

assisted the societies for a while, and the city gave what

help it could.

The old cemetery was in terrible condition, filled with

waist-high weeds, fallen trees, trash and crumbling vaults.

"The cemetery was literally abandoned," Matthews said.

"That's when we came in."

Matthews and his late wife, Vivian, used to pass the cemetery

every day. Vivian Matthews was greatly bothered by the

condition of the cemetery. "She'd say it's a disgrace in the

heart of Baton Rouge with all these churches here to have

this cemetery looking like this," Matthews said.

He told his wife, "They ought to do something about it."

That's when Vivian Matthews turned to her husband and said,

"We're part of the 'they.'"

The Matthewses with the help of a few friends started

collecting names and addresses of families who had relatives

buried in the cemetery. They collected 240 names in three

days, Matthews said.

They spread the word that they wanted to do something about

the cemetery. "It was coming up All Saints Day," Matthews

said. That was in 1973.

Family members came to the cemetery to get it in order for

the holiday. "People brought their hoes and rakes just to

clean up around the graves," he said. "People were highly

elated to know somebody was doing something about the


In early 1974, the Matthewses organized the Sweet Olive

Cemetery Association, a private, nonprofit organization to

manage the old cemetery. Fred C. Matthews Jr. became the

association president.

Local attorney Murphy Bell and Matthews enlisted the aid of

City Councilmen Joe Delpit, W.T. Winfield and Jewel Newman to

assist them in obtaining community development funds from the

federal government. One of the first improvements was a brick

and ironwork fence around the cemetery.

"When the surveyors came out before they put the fence up,

they discovered that the vaults extended 2 to 2½ feet beyond

the property line," Matthews said.

Bell and Matthews didn't know how they were going to handle

this problem. They could not find the relatives of those

people whose graves were not on actual cemetery property.

Mayor W.W. Dumas and Ray Burgess, director of public works

for the city-parish, came to the rescue of the association.

"Mr. Dumas and Mr. Burgess got together and said to forget

it. They dedicated the necessary footage to the cemetery,"

Matthews said. "You don't forget those kinds of things."

At the same time, America Street, which had previously

divided the cemetery in two, was revoked and closed to

traffic between 22nd and Baxter streets.

Even though Sweet Olive contains the graves of a veritable

"who's who" of black society from the first part of the last

century, one of the most famous graves in the cemetery is

that of a prominent white woman.

That woman, Ada Catharine Pollock, came to Baton Rouge with

her husband, Frank C. Blundon, in 1887 to establish an

orphanage and school for "poor colored children," Matthews

said. The Blundons, both New York Baptist volunteers,

established the Blundon Home.

"She meant everything to the black people in Baton Rouge.

When she died in 1917, the black leadership requested of her

family to allow them to bury her in this cemetery," Matthews

said. "As a tribute to this lady, a 4-by-8-foot marble slab

was placed on her grave with a beautiful and well-worded


Written on the marble slab is "This tablet was erected by the

colored people of Baton Rouge as a tribute of respect to the

twenty-nine years of untiring service that she has given to


Another important grave is that of the Rev. Washington Monroe

Taylor, who served as pastor of Mount Zion First Baptist

Church for about 30 years from the beginning of the 20th

century. Taylor was highly regarded in the African Baptist

community and served as president of the local district of

African Baptist churches, president of the state convention

and vice president of the national convention.

Taylor's son, the Rev. Gardner C. Taylor, a prominent Baptist

minister in New York, is an honorary member of the Sweet

Olive Cemetery Association board.

Other prominent citizens buried at Sweet Olive include L.M.

Johnson, who owned the Majestic Funeral Home and an insurance

company, and his wife, and businessman Wesley Ringgold.

And prominent, too, are the members who serve on the cemetery


Board member Joanna Dillon lived for many years by the

cemetery. "I used to watch as the people were buried and cry

along with their families," she said. She recalls that bones

from the early graves frequently washed up to the surface and

were visible on the property.

Edna Jordan Smith, a librarian who specializes in genealogy,

serves as cemetery historian. She has numerous relatives in

the cemetery, including two great-grandmothers. "Both were in

bondage," Smith said.

District 10 Councilwoman Lorri Burgess, a member of the

advisory committee, also has numerous ancestors buried at

Sweet Olive including her great-grandparents, Simon and

Georgianna Coats.

Also serving on the board are John H. Thomas III, Joan Smith,

Leonard Brown, Evelyn M. Baker, Ruth K. Hall, the Rev. J.

Bertell Davis, Irma Blakes, Lonnie Brooks Sr., George Cooper,

Zack Caines, Eddie Johnson Jr., Charles L. Jones Sr., John W.

Matthews Sr., George E. Mencer Jr. and Isadore Tansil.

Also serving on the advisory committee are Geraldine Brown,

Stan Douglas, the Rev. Mary Moody, Patricia Smith and

Wilhelmenia Woods. Preston George Sr. and Winfield are

coordinators, and Bell remains as legal counsel.

In 1992, when Hurricane Andrew hit Baton Rouge, trees were

blown down all through the cemetery. Mayor Tom Ed McHugh sent

15 men, who worked two weeks in the cemetery repairing the

damage. "That would have cost $60,000 or $70,000," Matthews


In recent years, numerous organizations have helped the

association with the unending task of maintaining the

property. Churches and local citizens of all faiths have

assisted including members of St. James Episcopal Church;

Holy Family and St. Frances Xavier Catholic churches;

Magnolia, St. Joseph, Shady Grove and Evening Star Baptist

churches; and B'nai Israel and Liberal Synagogues.

Judge Don Johnson frequently requires work in Sweet Olive

when he imposes sentences of volunteer service. "He has

worked with the people and has even paid for the equipment

himself," Lorri Burgess said.

Several years ago, Stan Douglas, a member of the Southeast

Kiwanis Club, saw an article in The Advocate about Sweet

Olive and volunteered the services of his club. They cut the

grass and do other cleanup chores on a regular basis now.

First lady Alice Foster has been instrumental in getting

inmates from the Dixon Correctional Institute to regularly

help with cleanup.

Recently 60 young people and adults from Trinity Lutheran

Church helped paint some of the vaults. "They used about 100

gallons of paint," Douglas said.

In the last couple of years the Mid City Redevelopment

Alliance has taken an active role in helping find ways to

permanently maintain the cemetery.

"We realized we were getting older. There was not much more

we could do," Dillon said. "We needed someone to help us with

the cemetery."

"At the same time we are trying to rebuild the housing in Mid

City, we thought it was important to work with the Sweet

Olive board," said Perry Franklin, Mid City executive

director. "There's so much history there."

Lorri Burgess, Franklin and Winfield represent the younger

generation interested in the historic cemetery.

"We look at these prominent citizens who have been involved

with Sweet Olive for so long, and we realize that the next

generation must step forward to join forces with that group,"

Franklin said.

The Mid City Redevelopment Alliance recently formed the Mid

City Historic Cemeteries Coalition with representatives from

the five historic mid-city cemeteries, St. Joseph Catholic

Cemetery, Magnolia Cemetery, the Jewish Cemetery, Baton Rouge

National Cemetery and Sweet Olive. The group has been meeting

to see how best to preserve these important historic


Matthews continues to serve as president of the Sweet Olive

Cemetery Association as he has since its founding. He keeps a

file on all those who have helped in the cemetery over the


"When the history of Sweet Olive Cemetery is written, their

names will be recorded in that sacred and venerable

document," he said.

These days, there's only an occasional funeral in Sweet

Olive. There's just not enough room.

"Sometimes a wife might want to be buried here with her

husband," Winfield said, "and a few families still have


"Every blue moon or so we have a funeral," Smith said.

Published on 8/6/00

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Oldest black cemetery suffering from neglect

Lack of respect for history, short funds cited


Advocate staff writer

Advocate staff photo by Mark Saltz

Graves at Sweet Olive Cemetery lie in disrepair. While many

graves are well-kept, others are cracked, sunken or hidden by

weeds and debris.

The oldest black cemetery in Baton Rouge greets visitors with

two signs on either side of its main entrance on South 22nd


On the right hangs an elegant stone sign inscribed with the

words "Sweet Olive Cemetery, circa 1850."

On the left stands a short wooden post with a typewritten

note. The note is peeling, but its plea for help is clear

enough: "We need money for improvements." Underneath the sign

sits a pile of trash and leaves sprinkled with beer bottles.

It is a despairing but fitting welcome to Sweet Olive

Cemetery, a quiet square of land that is home both to simple

acts of respect and remarkable examples of neglect.

There is trash scattered throughout the cemetery -- lots of

it. Glass, aluminum and plastic bottles litter the aisles,

and a shopping cart lies in a ditch near a mattress, a box

spring and two tires.

Some graves at Sweet Olive are topped with fresh flowers, and

others sport fresh paint and expensive markers. Some have

stones with hand-carved letters, and some have tile mosaics.

But many graves are crowded, cracked, decayed, badly sunken

or unmarked. Even more are hidden by weeds that have grown

shoulder-high in the cemetery's corners.

"The oldest African-American cemetery in our city should not

be neglected like this," said John Carpenter of the Mid City

Redevelopment Alliance, which is working behind the scenes to

help the cemetery.

"The sky should be the limit when you're starting as low as

this," Carpenter said. "And the way to drum up interest is to

show how important this cemetery is to the larger community."

Sweet Olive was the first cemetery in Baton Rouge

incorporated for use by black residents. According to the

Foundation for Historical Louisiana, the cemetery is believed

to be more than 200 years old. The 5.5-acre cemetery is

bordered by South 22nd Street, North Boulevard, Braxter

Street and Louisiana Avenue.

It is the final resting place of many of Baton Rouge's

prominent black residents and leaders. Buried here are The

Rev. Washington Monroe Taylor, a former pastor of Mount Zion

Baptist Church; Wesley Ringgold, a prominent black

businessman; Mr. and Mrs. R.V. Wills and Mr. and Mrs. Louis

Johnson, all well-known community leaders, as well as

veterans of World War II and the Korean War.

The graves of Ada C. Pollock and Frank C. Blundon, who

founded the Blundon Orphanage, are also here. The orphanage

schooled black children in Baton Rouge for decades starting

in the late 1800s.

Pollock's inscribed grave at Sweet Olive reads: "This tablet

was erected by the colored people of Baton Rouge as a tribute

of respect to the 29 years of untiring service that she has

given them."

No one knows how many people are buried in the cemetery.

Early burials weren't recorded, and many bodies were buried

on top of each other. Records at the state Cemetery Board,

which wasn't established until 1975, show there were 61

burials in 1984 but only 19 in 1996, 11 in 1997, 13 in 1998

and eight in 1999.

Records of Sweet Olive begin in 1898, when it was

incorporated for use by black residents and maintained by

benevolent societies of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church and

First African Baptist Church.

The societies maintained the cemetery until the 1970s, when

the non-profit Sweet Olive Cemetery Association took over.

The association was incorporated and registered with the

Secretary of State's office in 1975.

Unlike National Cemetery, which is owned by the federal

government, or Magnolia Cemetery, which is owned by the

city-parish, Sweet Olive Cemetery is still owned and managed

by a private, non-profit association.

The association's president, Fred Matthews of Baton Rouge,

started the group after noticing the neglect. He and his wife

removed weeds, cleared trees and won federal funds to build

the cemetery's brick-and-iron fence.

But today, Matthews, 94, said the cemetery board can't keep

up the fight.

"It's an up-and-down thing," he said. "We've been trying to

do something for 25 years. I remember when people would have

to clear away weeds to bury someone."

Although plenty of volunteer clean-ups have been held at

Sweet Olive over the years, Matthews said the problem is that

the efforts aren't ongoing. And there is no income from

burial fees, which are $125 per burial, since the cemetery is

already overcrowded. Matthews said Sweet Olive's last burial

was this past spring.

Matthews said the board has tried unsuccessfully to solicit

donations from relatives with family members buried in the

cemetery. A fund drive in 1975 gathered $7,000 from 300

people, he said, but this past November a similar effort

raised less than $500.

Board member Geraldine Brown, who has a grandmother and

great-grandmother buried in the cemetery, said the

association has done all it can.

"It just seems almost hopeless, and that's a terrible

feeling," she said. "I'm a person who basically has hope. Mr.

Matthews has struggled and the board has too, for so many

years. He's able to get it cleaned up on occasion, but

there's never any long-term help."

This past January the Mid City Redevelopment Alliance stepped

in, meeting with the board and offering a partnership to

raise funds and draft labor.

Carpenter, the alliance's resource development manager, said

Mid City officials have approached LSU, the Capital

Transportation Corp. and the city-parish Department of Public

Works about the cemetery.

Specifically, LSU professors have been asked for help in

developing a master plan for the cemetery's long-term design

and care, while CTC officials have been asked to apply for

federal funds that might pay for revitalizing the area. And

city-parish officials have been approached about possibly

helping move houses bordering Sweet Olive, with a black

museum or exhibit built in their place.

"We stand by what we've pledged as a civic organization,"

Carpenter said. "This is important and we don't have all the

answers, so we need to talk to people and that's what we've


Baton Rouge residents who have family members at Sweet Olive

say they feel both sad and helpless about the cemetery's


"It's in bad shape. I don't feel good about it, but I don't

have any alternative," said James Brooks, who cleaned up the

cemetery in the 1960s after his mother and father were buried

there. "I would be 100 percent behind any organization that

could do something."

Brooks' son, Tyrone, trims the grounds at Magnolia Cemetery

and remembers cleaning up Sweet Olive Cemetery with his


"It's like no-man's land now," he said. "I'd hate to see it

go to ruin, and I'd be glad to be part of any substantial

clean-up effort."

Civic officials acknowledge the problem with cleaning up

Sweet Olive is in keeping the efforts ongoing.

"We've had meetings, and we've mobilized volunteers, and then

before long it looks like it did the year before," said

Elizabeth "Boo" Thomas, executive director of Plan Baton

Rouge. "It's a very depressing thing.

"Volunteers might come once, and maybe they'll come a second

time, but then they'll move on to something different. That's

just the way we are. And there's no ongoing group or source

of funds to keep it up. The city won't do it because it's a

private cemetery, and the feds won't do it because it's not a

national cemetery."

Many believe part of the problem lies with residents who

don't seem to know or care that they have family or friends

buried in Sweet Olive Cemetery.

Trudy Bell, executive director of Serve! Baton Rouge,

remembers a listless response when officials organized a 1998

clean-up and tried to find residents who had family members

buried at Sweet Olive.

"We had a wonderful clean-up and we found some graves that

went back to the 1800s," she said. "It was like a history

lesson. But what we didn't find was the people who had loved

ones in that cemetery. We contacted churches to solicit

family members, and we didn't get a wholehearted response.

"I remember one man who came from out-of-town to paint his

family's tomb. He brought his own tools and paints; he felt

that strongly about it."

Bell said she doesn't think people understand who is

responsible for the cemetery's upkeep.

"I think they just assumed it would be kept up by some

entity," she said. "As they drive by and see it's not being

kept up, it seems as though they should take responsibility

themselves. But that's not happening."

Metro Councilman W.T. Winfield, who says he probably has

ancestors buried in Sweet Olive, said a civic organization

should take over the cemetery.

"The cemetery is nowhere near the condition it should be for

a number of reasons, but naturally the age-old reason is

neglect," Winfield said.

"They need to have it taken over by some organization that

has Baton Rouge as its core interest, for some sort of

long-lasting arrangement. That's what I see. Right now there

is no guarantee of any kind of control or maintenance."

Brown said she hopes residents who have family members buried

at Sweet Olive would now be willing to make a difference. But

she also wonders if it's too late to teach today's young

adults about protecting the past.

"It's a different mentality now," she said. "This generation

doesn't have the same caring attitude toward the people

(buried) there, and they probably don't even know who's


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