Nonprofit to run cemetery

A judge appointed a nonprofit community service organization Wednesday as temporary caretaker of a historic but dilapidated north Baton Rouge cemetery where local civil rights leader Gus Young Jr. is buried.

At the request of the state and Louisiana Cemetery Board, state District Judge Mike Caldwell appointed People Achieving Community Empowerment as “receiver” of Gilbert Memorial Park at 5560 Greenwell Springs Road.

The local community service group, also known as PACE, is within Community Bible Baptist Church.

Assistant Attorney General Ryan Seidemann told Caldwell the search now begins for a permanent owner.

In fall 2011, the state and Cemetery Board sued the owners of Gilbert Memorial Park and its overseer, Lymus Washington, for operating without a license for the past eight years.

The lawsuit followed numerous complaints from relatives of people buried there that the grounds were so deplorable the families could not find the headstones of their loved ones.

Washington agreed in January 2012 to stop conducting business at the cemetery.

Cemetery Board director Lucille McCann testified during Wednesday’s receivership hearing that maintenance at the cemetery is “extremely poor.” She also said the cemetery’s record-keeping leaves something to be desired.

Seidemann told Caldwell that Gilbert Memorial Park had its origins as a slave cemetery in the 1800s around the time of the Civil War. The Baranco family acquired it in the 1930s, he said.

Seidemann said the cemetery’s decline began in the mid- to late-1980s and continued through the 1990s and the early 2000s.

The last clear owner of the cemetery property was Blanche Baranco, who died in 1963, according to the state’s suit.

Fifteen descendants of Baranco are named as defendants.

Gilbert Memorial Park’s license to operate as a cemetery, last carried by Stephanie Green, lapsed in early 2003 and was never renewed, according to the Cemetery Board.

Green, one of the defendants in the suit, is the daughter of Baranco’s daughter Dolores, who died in 1989, court records show.

Washington has said he was married to Dolores Baranco, and that is how he became involved with the cemetery.

Seidemann told Caldwell that Washington took over “with really no authority” and had “no ownership interest.”

Washington has said he did the best he could to maintain the cemetery with the resources he had available. He also said he did not make any money on the cemetery and the money he collected for burials was just for expenses.

The state accused Washington of illegally operating a cemetery, including making arrangements, selling cemetery spaces, selling the opening and closing of graves and collecting money for all of those activities.