Camilla cemetery: ‘Black heaven, white heaven, integrated hell’

Tallahassee attorney Ben Crump and Camilla resident Gwen Lillian Thomas grip the cemetery fence during a Dec. 22 press conference. The fence was taken down on Thursday. (Contributed photo)

Tallahassee attorney Ben Crump and Camilla resident Gwen Lillian Thomas grip the cemetery fence during a Dec. 22 press conference. The fence was taken down on Thursday. (Contributed photo)

A fence that segregated Camilla, Ga.’s cemetery, with blacks buried on one side and whites on the other, was taken down Thursday after 85 years.

Ben Crump, a Tallahassee attorney who represented Camilla’s black mayor, said he found it stunning that the city had a segregated cemetery in 2018.

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“To keep black people from being buried next to white people — my thought to city leaders was, if there is a black heaven and a white heaven, they would find themselves in an integrated hell,” Crump told the AJC Friday.

“These are leaders of the city who continue to believe that even in death, the spirits can’t even be integrated.”

Camilla Mayor Rufus Davis, who is African-American, said the symbolism of the removal was important.

“It was a very powerful moment,” Davis said Friday. “I am happy that we were able to get there. But it’s a moment that will live with me forever. I can’t tell you the emotions I’ve witnessed.”

Mayor Davis said he was raised in Camilla but left to pursue his education and a career in Europe and in New York. He returned to the town of 5,300 about three years ago to care for his mother, he said.

“It was very much like the city that I left in 1982,” Davis said of Camilla. “But in many ways worse.

“Even then there was inclusion on the police force, there was a new high school, we had a public pool that has since been covered with dirt. All the opportunities that were there in 1982, even they had all eroded.”

He said he worked with organizations in Europe that promoted human rights and democracy in the Baltics and other nations.

“When I returned to my home . . . I was shocked to see that some of things that I had been fighting for in other places, that those rights and dignities did’t even exist in my own community. Shocking beyond belief.”

The mayor said his city is about 70 percent black, but the city police department is all-white, and whites hold most of the top city jobs. In addition, Davis asserted that 97 percent of black job applicants are “summarily rejected.”

According to Davis, 99 percent of white children in Camilla attend a private academy that only recently admitted black children — “four or five athletes,” he said — while 99 percent of African-American pupils attend what he called “the underfunded city school.”

City Manager Bennett Adams, who is the focus of many of Mayor Davis’ complaints, was not available for comment Friday afternoon. A City Hall worker said he had left for the day and would return a call on Tuesday.

Adams earlier told a local TV station that the cemetery isn't segregated — it's just that no nonwhite person has ever sought to buy a plot, he said. Adams has also disputed some of Davis' other assertions concerning race in the past.

Crump, retained by the mayor last year, sent the city a letter in December demanding that it remove the fence in 30 days or face a lawsuit.

“Black people,” he said, “have been marginalized and disenfranchised not only in life but also in death.”

The mayor said he hoped the entire community could unite to enter the cemetery and tear down the fence. He thought it would be a “cathartic moment where we could purge a not-so-pleasant past.”

But city workers took down the fence “in the dark of night” Thursday, Davis said, and he was unable to organize an event or ceremony around the removal.

Camilla lies south of Albany and about 50 miles north of the Georgia-Florida border.