Last year, Celestina Bishop went to visit the burial sites of her mother, sisters and grandmother on Mother’s Day. Her loved ones were interred at Woodlawn Memorial Park in Compton.
However, Bishop’s adoring tribute never happened because the cemetery gates were chained shut. At first undeterred, she jumped the fence and landed in garbage, debris and discarded items filling the property.
Encountering such blatant disrespect of the final remains of her relatives was emotionally devastating for Bishop. But, instead of collapsing in tears, she sprung into action to rejuvenate the site and today, she heads the nonprofit that owns the cemetery and aims to refurbish other memorial parks that have fallen into disrepair.
“My organization, One Section At A Time, was registered on June 12, 2020, just six weeks after I came to Woodlawn Memorial Park to visit my mother, sisters and grandmother on May 10th,” said Bishop, who outlined the group’s mission as “restoring honor and dignity to Woodlawn” by keeping the gates open for family members and others to visit and promote the historical value and contributions of the cemetery.
Explaining the inspiration behind her actions, Bishop noted, “Initially, I was overwhelmed that my family’s final resting place had become nothing more than an abandoned lot, overgrown with weeds, covered with trash, occupied by homeless encampments and dead and feral animals.
“I struggled to understand how a sacred place meant to honor the memory and lives of our loved ones could fall into such despair,” she recalled. Seeking answers, Bishop investigated the property and learned that the owner had lost his license and closed Woodlawn. Also, despite evolving into an unsightly and hazardous site, no local and state agency stepped up to clean the cemetery, which stopped accepting burials in 2011.
Clearly exacerbated, Bishop said, “The fact that the site was litter-filled, I had no recourse. As the saying goes, if you want something done, do it yourself.”
And she got to work cleaning up the space along with recruiting other people to join the volunteer effort. Bishop hosted “Justice to Woodlawn” where she invited those with family members buried at Woodlawn and the community at large to help spruce up the property. Frank Wilson, a Compton native, was among the people who lent a hand.
“My ancestors were some of the first [residents] in Compton and some of the first to be buried here. I have great-great-grandparents here and all kinds of aunts and uncles. I’ve been coming to Woodlawn for decades. After I retired I didn’t come for a while, but then I came out last year and saw how bad it was, so I started helping Celestina,” said Wilson, who also serves on the OSAAT board of directors.
The volunteers removed all of the trash and junk cluttering the property and are working on leveling the ground, which became uneven due to lack of water and nourishing soil. On October 19, OSAAT paid off the back taxes on Woodlawn and the owner signed over the cemetery to the organization. With the deed in hand, the OSAAT team is now focused on organizing Woodlawn’s official burial records, securing historical status for the cemetery and raising funds to maintain the property.
Woodlawn is full, so new internments are not possible, but the nonprofit wants to continue operating the site so people can visit the graves of loved ones or hold memorial ceremonies for relatives and friends. According to Wilson, a family from Las Vegas appeared last week and stayed for nearly three hours “singing and telling their kids about grandma.” OSAAT will provide chairs, table and tents for gatherings of 10 or more.
“We want everyone to have a good experience at Woodlawn, especially since it has been sabotaged for so many years. A lot of people are just realizing that it’s open, so we want to make sure we give them comfort during their grieving because coming to visit the final resting place is part of the grieving process,” Bishop said.
In addition to being a place of comfort during periods of sorrow, Woodlawn contains a lot of history, too. The oldest tombstone denotes the passing of Abigail Stockwell in 1871. The cemetery also contains the remains of many early settlers of Compton as well as prominent individuals from more recent eras.
“They include Assemblyman Carley V. Porter, called the ‘father of water legislation’ and an early fighter against water pollution,” shared Bishop. “Also, Francis Townsend [is here], who created the Townsend Plan to address poverty among the elderly in the United States; and George Decker, known as ‘Gentleman George’ and considered one of the best first basemen of the 1890s.”
Judy Washebeck, OSAAT volunteer and group historian, listed some of the notable African Americans interred at Woodlawn, which include Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter, a social activist and co-founder of the Southern California chapter of the Black Panther Party; Freeman Davis, a 1940s-50s whistling and bone playing recording artist known as ‘Brother Bones,’ whose playing of ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ was adopted as the Harlem Globetrotters’ theme song; Theolic Smith, a Negro League baseball pitcher, who was nicknamed ‘Fireball’ for his sizzling fastball; and Paralee Coleman, a child actress who appeared in short films between 1926 and 1937 including playing the character Pleurisy in the “Our Gang” Little Rascals movies.
While Bishop and the OSAAT team are deeply vested in revitalizing Woodlawn Memorial Park, the continued success of the project is tied to their volunteer efforts and ability to attract consistent funding to maintain the memorial park. Estimating that her family has invested about $275,000 so far to cover cleaning, repairing and operating expenses, she hopes to implement community involvement and giveback programs to attract potential donors.
“Local companies like California Pest Management and RDO Equipment have contributed resources, services and equipment. Also, individual contributions through GoFundMe aided in paying the back taxes,” she said. “But, we need to establish additional, stable funding sources through grants, corporate and sponsoring organizations.”
Despite the challenges, Bishop remains optimistic that the goals will be achieved. “We’ve been successful in bringing joy to family members by restoring and transforming Woodlawn,” she said. To ensure future success, Bishop said that she’ll be guided by the words of Winston Churchill: “Never give up. Never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense.”
To learn more or donate to One Section At A Time, visit onesectionatatime.org.