By Steve Bandy
Published June 19, 2008
The struggle to acquire easy access to Love Cemetery took an unexpected turn Thursday afternoon.
Members of the Texas Funeral Service Commission and others were left standing at the gated entrance to the logging road leading to the property on which the small plot is located, sandwiched between Marshall and the Louisiana border. A representative from Snider Industries, LLP, the company that owns the property on which the road is located, was supposed to meet the commissioners there. The gate was unlocked, but the company's representative never showed.
O.C. "Chet" Robbins, executive director of the commission, said he was told that the decision to grant access Thursday had been reversed due to media coverage.
Robbins said he talked to Marshall attorney Dean Searle, who represents Snider, by cell phone and was told "the reason why we are not being allowed into the cemetery is because the media is here. I made him repeat it."
Robbins said he didn't know how the media knew of Thursday's planned meeting at the roadway other than that it had been discussed during a public meeting of the funeral commission.
"This commission works above board," he said. "We have no control over the media, but neither do we have any secrets." Searle, who was in Dallas Thursday, said by telephone later Thursday afternoon that the decision to deny access was not due solely to the presence of the media, but because of the presence of people other than the Funeral Service commissioners.
"Mr. Robbins and the vice-chair (Sue Evenwel) indicated to me that the two of them wanted to go look at the cemetery. I was led to believe it was only the two of them," Searle said. "Then I found out an entourage was going to be there and the entire entourage wanted to go." Searle said the company representative who was supposed to meet Robbins at the gate "is not the person to talk to about the issues" should questions be raised.
"I was never led to believe that there would be anyone other than commission people," he said. "I was not going to put Snider's land man through that. If the press is going to be there, I want to be there. If I had been in Marshall I would have come out there and taken care of it."
Searle said he offered Robbins the option of rescheduling or of scheduling "private" - just the commissioners - access, pointing out that the actual cemetery is not located on land owned by Snider but on land owned by Dr. Tommy Brown. "That road only provides access across Snider property to Dr. Brown's property," he said.
But Robbins was noticeably flustered by the turn of events.
"Do I agree with this? No. Could I go in if I wanted to? Yes, the gate is open," Robbins said from the intersection of Marshall Leigh and Cowpen roads just after 2 p.m. "But instead of a win-lose situation, I'm trying for a win-win, so I'm going to honor Mr. Searle's request." He added, however, that he planned additional action.
"We're going to get this squared away," Robbins said before leaving the site Thursday afternoon. "The best thing to do (now) is to leave. I'm going to get with the AG's office and tell them we have a challenge out here. Probably the first stakeholders' meeting will be held in Marshall.
"We're going to get this remedied so that people like you (pointing at Doris Vittatoe) can go right down that road to visit their relatives' graves," he continued. "Understand that the commission is trying to get this resolved."
Ms. Evenwel said she also was disappointed with the turn of events.
"We were told this morning that there would be no problem," Ms. Evenwel said. "They said someone would meet us here at 1:30. Now here we are."
Also at the gate was Doris Vittatoe, president of the Love Cemetery Burial Association and great granddaughter of Ohio Taylor, a former slave who is among those buried on the 1.6-acre site.
"I'm very saddened about this decision," Ms. Vittatoe said. "Once again promises were made and promises were broken." Love Cemetery descendants had been essentially blocked from the site from the 1960s until just a few years ago, according to China Galland, who wrote a book, "Love Cemetery, Unburying the Secret History of Slaves."
Galland, who also was at the gate Thursday to document the re-entry to the cemetery, was involved with the clean-up of the cemetery back in 2003, helping to clear the site so that officials from the state Historical Society could come in and survey it. Galland said the survey revealed that many more burial sites are located in the cemetery than had first been thought.
"They determined that the cemetery probably dates back to the 1820s," she said. "It was deeded to the association in 1904 by Della Love - thus the name."
The association had an agreement with the previous land owners that allowed them access to the grounds to clean it up and repair some of the headstones. But the agreement apparently ended when the lumber company purchased the land and closed the road.
"It has been closed off since March 10 of 2007," Galland said, adding that all the work done to clean up the area is being lost because there
At issue is insurance.
"The cemetery association has a written easement, but in that easement they've agreed to provide insurance. They have not done so nor have they offered any alternatives," Searle said.
"To be perfectly fair, the landowners do have some liability issues," Ms. Evenwel said.
Texas law states that property owners must allow access to graves, but it doesn't set penalties for violators.
Ms. Vittatoe said she was aware, and appreciative, of the commission's efforts but added that the locked gate "is detrimental to the people who want to go in and take care of the graves."
She also expressed disdain for the company's reasoning behind the decision not to allow access Thursday.
"We didn't invite the media. This was talked about at a public meeting. This is a public road," she said.
"All we want is for (Snider) to please get to the table with us to get this resolved and over with once and for all."
Searle said he is willing to talk to representatives of the cemetery association, but added that he has not been contacted by any.
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