Davonta Ferguson is challenging James Johnson for Wilson’s District 4 city council seat. The Times‘ feature on Ferguson did not include a statement concerning Vick Cemetery.
As reported by the Wilson Times on 19 October 2023, here’s James Johnson’s position on Vick. It warrants annotation.
(A) The discussion about Vick Cemetery he refers occurred in 1994 and was not the first time the cemetery’s conditions had been brought to council’s attention.
(B) “People don’t want to see what I qualified with.” Who are “people”? We’ll talk about Johnson’s qualified no vote below.
(C) “Morgan didn’t know it was a cemetery.” Gillettia Morgan is not quite as old as I am, so I suppose it is possible that that she didn’t know about what we then called Rountree Cemetery, even though she grew up around the corner. But this is hearsay, and the point is not what Morgan knew. She was not on council in 1994. “Young man” or not, Johnson was an elected official whose business was, and is, to understand the issues that come before him, whether they arise in his district or not.
(D) “They presented us a plan to take care of it” — They, being Wilson Cemetery Commission, presented a plan (the project description, presumably?) that the city attorney did not recognize as deeply problematic because it involved the unlawful removal of headstones and alteration of the landscape? And Johnson “voted against it because I was upset no one had called it out to us sooner — something to that effect.”
NO, SIR. Here’s the quote from city council minutes of 3 November 1994:
“Councilmember [James M.] Johnson said that he had a problem with relatives letting their families’ graves being left in as shoddy a condition as they are now; that he was in favor of getting the Vick Cemetery improved, but, morally, he was going to vote against it, as a message to those family members who had loved ones buried there.”
This is wrong in so many ways. It is patently false that no one called out conditions at Vick prior to 1994. The community complained about Vick from its earliest years. The county health department condemned it in the 1950s. It reverted to woodland in the 1960s. Via newspaper accounts, I can document efforts by citizens in 1983, 1989, 1990, 1991, and 1993 to get city council to act. But why would Johnson place the burden on families to clean up their own graves or demand adequate public care for a public cemetery that has been the city’s responsibility since 1913? Did Maplewood families have to demand care to get it? The arrogance of this 25 year-old to “send a message” to people whose loved ones’ graves had been disregarded and disrespected for decades. And we now have a 50-something year-old, still sitting in that same council seat, who thinks his “qualification” of his vote absolves him of something. The vote is not the problem. It’s the high-handed moralizing and refusal even now to recognize the impact of his words.
(E) I have found evidence of one meeting, which took place in April 1995 at B.O. Barnes Elementary — after the city had already awarded the contract to remove the headstones and grade the land, and the work had begun. I have requested documents that show what took place at these meetings, but the City has none. I’ve also requested records that document the discussion around the central monument, but, per the City, none exist.
(F) There had already been 80+ years of neglect by time council acted in 1994. And “malice” is not the point.
(G) “Everything had good intentions in 1996.” Intention vs. impact. Whatever the intentions may have been, the impact was the effective loss of a cemetery. “Everyone was satisfied.” Satisfied with what?? Even if people — not knowing these actions violated state law — were satisfied with the plan to remove the headstones temporarily, clean up the cemetery, and put the markers back, who was satisfied to have these headstones destroyed? Who was satisfied to have enormous steel power poles stabbed into the graves of loved ones? Johnson completely skirts these atrocities.
“We didn’t know graves extended out, maybe to the road.” First of all, any Black person over the age of 50 could have told him that in 1994. But now council does know, and what are they doing about it?
(H) “We didn’t have anybody on staff who knew to deal with the cemetery and what was involved.”
(I) “Everything was done to treat those people that are buried there with respect. Everybody thought it was respectful for the past 25 to 28 years. I don’t know what’s changed.” Per (H), the City took action without proper understanding and guidance. Destroying headstones and running power lines through cemeteries is not respectful.
What’s changed is we now know better, and we are demanding that the City do better.
(J) “Johnson worries that any solution the City Council proposes now won’t satisfy the public.” Unless Council changes course and demonstrates a collective willingness to engage transparently with the descendant community (or the broader community — this is not just a District 1 issue) about Vick Cemetery’s future, I get his worry.