Request to exhume baby of mixed race withdrawn Ga. deacons apologize for wanting to keep cemetery all-white

March 31, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

THOMASVILLE, Ga. -- The integration of the Barnett Creek Baptist Church cemetery is done. A mixed-race baby, the most recent burial in the cemetery's serene patch of stained granite and plastic flowers, can rest peacefully now. So, finally, can her family.

Church deacons, who had asked the relatives of the child, Whitney Elaine Johnson, to exhume her because they wanted to keep their graveyard exclusively white, have apologized for trying to persuade them to do the unthinkable.

"I got what I wanted. Whitney can rest," said the child's mother, 18-year-old Jaime L. Wireman, after the church's head deacon zTC told her on Friday that he was sorry for asking her to move her baby to another cemetery.

"We admit our mistake," Logan Lewis, the deacon, told Ms. Wireman and the baby's father, 25-year-old Jeffrey Johnson. But while Ms. Wireman, who is white, and Mr. Johnson, who is black, welcomed an end to an ordeal that has drawn nationwide attention, they and other members of the family say it will be a long, long time before the hurt fades.

"What they did to us exposed something ugly," Sylvia K. Leverett, the child's maternal grandmother, said of the deacons' request that the family dig up the infant and move her to a graveyard that accepted blacks. The request shocked both residents and outsiders in its callousness. To Mrs. Leverett and the rest of the family, it went beyond racism. It was inhuman.

Even people who believe that integration has gone far enough were surprised, and dismayed, at what the deacons did. Members of the deacons' own congregation condemned them. An official with the Southern Baptist Convention called it an embarrassment to the gospel of Christ.

"This isn't the 1950s," said Mrs. Leverett, the baby's grandmother. But for several long, painful days, she said, it felt like it.

Thomasville is like a lot of other Southern towns. Its stately white houses and picturesque main street are ringed by wider streets of ugly strip malls and fast food joints. People who live here say race relations are no worse and no better than in other places where whites and blacks share schools, sidewalks and stores, but seldom neighborhoods and homes.

The sight of a biracial couple seems to draw out the worst of the racism that is here, Ms. Wireman said. When she and Mr. Johnson walk along Thomasville's street, people occasionally shout insults from passing cars. They have ignored it. "We were in love," she said.

Whitney was born at 10 a.m. on March 19. Her skull was not fully formed, and she lived just 19 hours.

"We named her after Whitney Houston, the singer," Ms. Wireman said. "They took her down to the big hospital in Tallahassee, but there wasn't anything they could do. God let her live long enough so that I could hold her. I wouldn't take a million dollars for that time."

Ms. Wireman wanted the baby to be buried beside her grandfather so Whitney would have company. The burial began a process of healing, but it was interrupted just days later.

The board of deacons voted three days after the funeral to ask the family to take the tiny coffin from the cemetery's ground.

"It wasn't all the people in the church," Ms. Wireman said. "I know there are some very, very good people there. But the deacons are the most powerful men in town. I used to look up to them."

Only after reactions to the request rained down on them did the deacons relent.

"Our church family humbly asks you to accept our apology," said Mr. Lewis.

"I can't go to town now without someone coming up to hug me and tell me how sorry they are that this all happened," Mrs. Leverett said.

Pub Date: 3/31/96

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