Compton

Woman on Mission to Rededicate Hallowed Compton Cemetery Grounds, One Section at a Time

Weeds at Woodlawn Cemetery in Compton had grown five feet tall, nothing was green, water hadn't flowed through underground pipes in at least two years, a tree had become more of a bush that covered her family's gravesites..

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It's one of the oldest cemeteries in Los Angeles. Established in 1871, Woodlawn Cemetery in Compton holds history behind its gates that could very soon be lost. That's because until recently, its gates had been closed shut, the owners' license revoked and property taxes nearing a million dollars left unpaid.

But it was Mother's Day 2020 when a small light in the form of an angry daughter lit the path to what could potentially turn Woodlawn Cemetery into a national historical landmark.

Celestina Bishop calls this cemetery home. She started coming when she was two years old with her grandmother, sometimes even sleeping on the cemetery grounds against the cold headstones of her mother and three sisters. In 1977, Bishop was the sole survivor of a bloodbath murder scene on a night of terror in Los Angeles.

"They were bludgeoned to death," Bishop said. "My only memory of my mom and my sisters is that night and Woodlawn."

The cemetery has a history of legal troubles spanning decades. But when Bishop couldn't get inside on Mother's Day last year, she said it sparked so much anger that she had to do something.

"It was unrecognizable as a cemetery, it looked like a graveyard in a horror flick," she said.

Weeds had grown five feet tall, nothing was green, water hadn't flowed through underground pipes in at least two years, a tree had become more of a bush that covered her family's gravesites. Tears she used to cry for lost loved ones started to fall for a very different reason.

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"There are American soldiers buried here, this is a slap in the face to them," she says.

Eighteen Civil War veterans are buried at Woodlawn, which would become the first cemetery in LA to segregate. The founders of Compton and Carson are buried on site; Francis Townsend, the founder of what would become the Social Security Administration is buried on site, so is the founder of the LA Chapter of the Black Panthers, Al Prentice "Bunchy" Carter and Freeman Davis of Brother Bones fame who famously whistled Sweet Georgia Brown into Harlem Globtrotter history.

Bishop's posts to social media turned into a call to action. For months over the summer, hundreds of volunteers arrived to help clear out the cemetery. Bishop started a non-profit called One Section at a Time that she hoped would soon turn into the foundation to take over ownership of the cemetery.

But the legal troubles have continued for the cemetery even today - an auction to sell off the property and cover the $820,000 in back taxes is on hold and Bishop worries the $150,000 she and her husband put into the clean-up and renovations of the property may go to waste.

"What do we do? We don't have 820-thousand dollars, I don't know anyone who does," she says. A GoFundMe site aims to help offset the costs but her hope is the cemetery could be turned over to her so she can turn it into a museum of local history. The cemetery itself became a local landmark in the 1940s and she wants to see it recognized nationally.

"I have the application on my desk," she laughs.

More than 11 acres and more than 26,800 souls laid to rest at Woodlawn, the future remains in limbo. Bishop considers herself a guardian of the grounds, still praying for an angel to save them.

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