BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - It’s a story WAFB has visited for years now: the lack of care that goes into Sweet Olive Cemetery. It’s the oldest African American cemetery in Baton Rouge, but it’s also arguably the most unkempt.
When you lock eyes on the historic Sweet Olive Cemetery off S 22nd Street, it’s become the norm to see overgrown grass. It’s also not much of a surprise to see a tree swallowing a gravestone or vaults open, exposing human remains. All this, despite the cemetery’s placement on the National Register of Historic Places.
“At one time, Sweet Olive Cemetery was the only place African Americans could be buried,” said District 10 Councilwoman Tara Wicker. “We have so much rich history, so much of our heritage and culture that is here in this cemetery.”
Some would say it’s not that bad, you can at least walk through the cemetery safely, but that hasn’t always been the case. The cemetery has survived through the help of volunteers.
“With that also comes its own issues because you have to wait until some volunteer organizations decide to take it on a project,” the councilwoman explained.
While their efforts are admirable, volunteers shouldn’t have to foot the bill to clean the cemetery up, and city leaders have noticed.
“So there hasn’t been anything that has been consistent, that we can depend on and say we know that at the end of the day, Sweet Olive Cemetery is going to be cared for and restored and that’s a problem," Wicker said.
Right now, Councilwoman Wicker says East Baton Rouge Parish is looking into a grant program called the National Fund for Sacred Places. If approved, it means Sweet Olive would get the constant attention it needs. It also means vaults that have been tampered with can be restored and headstones have a shot at being spruced up. It’s a conversation they started years ago, but has been pushed to the forefront.
“This really becomes that village effort where it’s going to take everybody coming to the table,” Wicker said. “And making sure that families that have individuals that are buried here have the opportunity to see their family members laid in a place that’s respectful and honored.”
Councilwoman Wicker also told WAFB the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office will add the cemetery to their list of sites for inmates to maintain. Officials say until they get the grant finalized, that will be significant in their cleanup efforts.