Lane Street Project: the perils of speaking truth to power and, also, a victory.

Lane Street Project Senior Force leader Castonoble Hooks recently resigned his appointed position with the Wilson Cemetery Commission, having been subjected to unwarranted disrespect by City Council.

Here’s the Wilson Times article that catalyzed his action — with my comments and questions in red. They of course reflect my opinions alone.

City Council discusses cemetery commission.

By Nicholas Schnittker, Wilson Times, 8 October 2022.

City-owned cemeteries, and the Wilson Cemetery Commission that runs the Rest Haven and Maplewood cemeteries, dominated the Wilson City Council’s open-session discussion during Thursday’s breakfast meeting.

Dell Joyner, a commission member and owner of Joyner’s Funeral Home & Crematory, said the commission is currently at a stalemate regarding price increases due to internal arguments. [Persons who work in the funeral industry hold mandated seats on the Cemetery Commission. As they stand to benefit directly from the Commission’s actions, this feels to me like a conflict of interest.]

“It’s been a struggle to try and get some of this through and some of the board members,” Joyner said. “I don’t think they have some of the business background that would help them in making decisions of raising our prices a little bit to financially continue putting into the cemeteries because I don’t want the cemeteries to be taken over by the city and I don’t want it to burden the city. There is enough revenue there to maintain the cemetery.” [This remark, like most that follow, could use some unpacking. What does “there is enough revenue there to maintain the cemetery” mean? If there’s enough, why the price increase that Joyner badly wants, but the Commission won’t agree to? Also, here’s a bit of information would be helpful to know — Rest Haven Cemetery brings in the lion’s share of cemetery income and thus subsidizes Maplewood Cemetery.]

Internal arguments were far from the only issue involving the panel. Councilman Michael Bell asked whether any rules or guidelines apply to cemetery commissioners making public statements or social media posts that he said aren’t rooted in facts. [“Aren’t rooted in facts”? First, council has shown itself to be only distantly familiar with facts as they pertain to Wilson’s historic African-American cemeteries. Second, whom is Bell calling a liar, why monitoring citizens’ Facebook posts, and where does the First Amendment intersect with all this?]

Johnson said the council has fallen short on some of its appointments because the cemetery commission is unlike any other board in the city and requires some special talents. [There’s an editing problem here, as this is the first reference to “Johnson.” For clarity, this is James Johnson, who has been on council since way back in the 1990s and ’00s when the city cleared Vick Cemetery and destroyed its headstones. Now, what are these talents? How long have they been required?]

“We say that anybody can serve on any committee they want to,” Johnson said. “While that’s true if we put them on there, but at the same time, we have hurt the committee with some of our past appointments, and that falls on us recommending them to you and you voting for them. So the only thing that can be done is to pull those commission members back and remove them.” [Here’s an alternative to censuring committee members that you cannot control — get out of your feelings and listen to their concerns.]

Johnson added that he didn’t know the process for removal and City Attorney Jim Cauley would have to weigh in.

“This is the first committee in my 30 years that I can remember board members coming out against somebody that they want to partner with and talking trash nonstop,” Johnson said. “I don’t remember us appointing people on any committee where they came out against us — and we are the appointing body — because we have been pretty fair on everything. You have the leeway to do what you want to and you’re the one on the committee responsible for upkeep of that committee, so you’re bashing us for neglecting your responsibilities. That’s basically what I’ve been hearing, and that’s what I’ve been reading on Facebook.” [So is this what got two council members and a commission member wound up? That other commission members have taken issue with “business as usual” at the Cemetery Commission and have challenged the status quo? Apparently, Johnson’s “required talents” include acquiescence, tractability, and a willingness to keep your tongue in your head. Castonoble Hooks, the unnamed subject of these jabs, certainly demonstrated over his eight months of commission service that he does not do well at any of these.]

Johnson said he thought the council was on a good path after righting a perceived wrong in the 2000s. [Again, this is Johnson, who was there. What “perceived wrong” has been righted? Do we know how many dead lie in Vick Cemetery? Do we know their names? Do we know where their grave markers were tossed? Council’s agreement to fund ground-penetrating radar at Vick started them on a good path, but alone rights no wrongs. And is not the end of this journey.]

“To have a couple of rough board members or a rogue board member, however many there are, in a committee that we pick blaming us for their failure to follow through with their responsibilities is just odd,” he said. “I think we need to be done with it and the folks that want to come to us and complain about the cemeteries, we send them to the cemetery commission.” [“The folks that want to come to us and complain about the cemeteries” — that’s me. That’s Lane Street Project. (“Rough” and “rogue” though?) Neither James Johnson nor anyone else on council get to tell us who we can or can’t complain to. Nor can these elected officials decide that they’re “done with it.”]

Wilson Cemetery Commission meetings are open to the public and are held at 4:45 p.m. on the second Monday of every month at Maplewood Cemetery, 400 College St. Mayor Carlton Stevens said anyone with a question about the cemeteries can call 252-243-3386.

Councilman Derrick Creech raised concerns about staffing and equality for Rest Haven, specifically that he’s received calls about people not being able to find workers to guide them to specific locations in the cemetery.

Over the last few years, Joyner said, the commission has invested extra money into Rest Haven to open a new section and started to allow upright single monuments there, but he added that commissioners can’t build roads for the new sections at the current price per gravesite. [“Invested extra money …  to open a new section ….” Demand at Rest Haven exceeds that at Maplewood. The only way to meet it — and continue generating income for both cemeteries — is to open new sections. This isn’t “extra money.” More to the point, Council can find a quarter of a million dollars to fix a decorative arch at Maplewood, but can’t build roads at Rest Haven?]

“There’s been a lot more money spent over there,” Joyner said of Rest Haven. “Maplewood is kind of good. We need stuff there, but a whole lot more focus has been on Rest Haven because it is busier.” [As focus should be.]

Joyner estimated 75% of the commission’s money is going to Rest Haven for the improvements and to open individual gravesites. He said Rest Haven sells a lot more burial plots than Maplewood. [Talk about burying the lede….]

“That’s the reality, then the African American community have a perception that nothing is being done,” Bell said. “It’s a perception that is not a reality, and I think until somebody is able to tabulate sequentially ‘This is what has been done, this is what we are doing,’ then we’re going to have this evolving conversation about cemeteries.” [May I see a sequential tabulation for Vick Cemetery, please?]

Stevens said he knows what Rest Haven looked like 20 years ago and what it looks like today, saying it looks much better.

“So all I can do is be a voice to say, first of all, I am not going to allow a cemetery to divide this city,” Stevens said. “We have gone through so much in the last three years and every atrocity we went through, it seemed like we band together. Regardless of what our political affiliation and what we thought, we banded together and we pushed through it. I am not going to allow a cemetery to separate us based off one’s perceived perception, and it’s not going to have. I know for a fact that this board is about equity, is about equality, and they want the right thing to be done. Period.” [“Divide this city”? A dispute over whether grave-opening fees should be increased threatens to divide the city? Or is it that an outspoken advocate for equity and transparency is seen as more divisive than those who would shut their eyes to a century of neglect of certain public cemeteries? ]

The council also discussed Vick Cemetery and the possibility of the city deeding it over to the cemetery commission. Creech asked about the commission’s plans for Vick if it receives oversight responsibilities.

Johnson responded, saying that wasn’t a question to be raised right now. [Why not?]

“That’s the question of us once we deed it over,” he said. “If we’re going to give somebody a property, we have to give them the ability to take care of it.”

The cemetery commission was established under a 1923 state law that allows such bodies to operate independently of local government. General Statute 160A-349.4 notes that such boards “shall have the exclusive control and management” of the burial grounds they oversee and can employ superintendents and assistants.

As a separate entity from the city of Wilson, the commission can own property. Despite its autonomy, the panel is one of Wilson’s 18 appointed boards and commissions. If the City Council ever chose to dissolve the cemetery commission, all its assets would automatically revert to the city.

Johnson added that estimating maintenance costs is a task for the staff, and the City Council can make decisions about budget allocations after reviewing those estimates.

If the city conveys the Vick Cemetery to the commission, Cauley recommended the council update the city code regarding cemeteries to include Vick.

No vote was taken regarding Vick, but Cauley said he would bring something before the council at a future meeting.

——

That future meeting occurred ten days later at the October 18 Council session, where, surprisingly Council turned over Vick Cemetery to the Commission. We claim this victory and will carefully monitor its ongoing care:

City deeds Vick to Wilson Cemetery Commission.

By Nicholas Schnittker, Wilson Times, 24 October 2022.

The Wilson City Council unanimously voted to transfer ownership of Vick Cemetery to the Wilson Cemetery Commission as part of its consent agenda at Thursday’s meeting.

The council also approved a city code revision to include Vick Cemetery by name.

Castonoble Hooks, a cemetery commission member and staunch advocate for Vick, thanked the council during the meeting’s public comment portion.

“I want to start off first of all by thanking you — thanking you for finally acknowledging that Vick Cemetery is a Wilson public cemetery,” Hooks said. “When I first approached you guys last year, I was told that I was mistaken, but I wasn’t called a liar.”

Hooks abruptly resigned from the commission during his three minutes of speaking time, referencing City Council members’ comments during the October breakfast meeting about possibly removing an unnamed cemetery commissioner.

“In the recent newspaper article from your breakfast, I was called a liar,” Hooks said. “It was said that I misled the public. I am the cemetery commissioner who is not named, but the last one to be appointed.”

Hooks said he was subjected to accusations and innuendo. He also alerted the council to an April audit of the cemtery commission that he said showed mismanagement.

“You said you wanted to get your lawyer to find a way to remove me from the cemetery commission. I remove myself,” Hooks said. “I will remove myself because I don’t think you are genuinely concerned with public input. I have several documents, your own documents, that can show that the cemetery commission is in trouble. They’ve asked y’all to take over. They had a million dollars, they meet one hour, one time a month. They can’t oversee this. This is not a new problem. I am not the first person to bring this up. It has been brought up for decades.”

——

My thanks to Castonoble Hooks, who holds down Lane Street Project in so many fundamental ways, and whose commitment to the restoration of our ancestors to memory and respect is beautiful and depthless.

Photo by Chris Facey; all rights reserved.

One comment

  1. Thank you Mr. Hooks!!! You stood firm and patiently watched the glory of the Lord unfold!! May you and yours be richly rewarded for your unwavering commitment to fairness, decency, and order.

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