BATON ROUGE – The oldest Black cemetery in East Baton Rouge has been neglected for decades. Broken tombstones, exposed bones and overgrown vegetation have taken over Sweet Olive Cemetery.
Ever since Markeda Ann Cottonham moved to Baton Rouge from San Francisco, she has made it her personal mission to restore the dilapidated five-acre cemetery, but she can’t do it alone. That’s why she started the non-profit group, Friends of Sweet Olive Cemetery.
“The reality here is that there’s tons of open graves and tons of exposed bodies and they’re still letting people bury people here and that’s not OK,” Cottonham said.
Cottonham has dedicated her time to organizing volunteer groups to assist with cleaning up the resting grounds. When no one is available, she and her fiance cut the grass alone.
“I think it’s important to the community because it’s part of our history. You need to preserve the history in order to be better. We don’t want any other cemetery to become like this,” Cottonham said.
Over the next few days, a group of high school students from a FranU summer camp will be working at Sweet Olive, pulling weeds and cutting down grass that conceals the graves of the deceased.
“With our faith, we know that even past our time here on Earth, we still have inherent dignity and so by doing this cemetery cleanup, we’re manifesting that,” said Tyler Trahan, director of the Franciscan Experience.
To anyone who looks at the condition of the cemetery, it’s clear that cleanup will not be an easy task.
“Looking at everything that we’re seeing, what we’re being told is to just make a dent,” Trahan said.
Any efforts from volunteers are usually short-lived, which is pushing Cottonham to look into more permanent maintenance solutions. She hopes in the future, BREC will take responsibility for the grounds, but there is an issue with ownership.
“Going through this for so long and having to try to get help and not being able to receive it, I realized that the people who actually own the cemetery just decided not to do anything with it,” Cottonham said. “The main goal is to get BREC to take control so they can maintain it, and then we start the cemetery renewal process which is to just rebuild and re-level the gravestones that are broken and toppling over and the exposed bodies.”
Until a solution is figured out, Cottonham will continue to care for Sweet Olive and give it the dignity it deserves.