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Subject: [LA-CEMETERY-PRESERVATION] Sweet Olive Cemetery, Baton Rouge,Louisiana - Newspaper Articles in Archive
Date: Tue, 20 Jan 2009 18:58:36 -0800 (PST)
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Date: Sun, 2 Jun 2002 10:55:18 EDT
Sweet Olive backer Matthews dies
By BRETT BARROUQUERE
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
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
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
By CAROL ANNE BLITZER
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
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
"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
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
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
"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,"
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
By J. TAYLOR RUSHING
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
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
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
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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