BROOKLYN, NY - A few dozen protesters joined a handful of gravediggers of Woodlawn Cemetery, who claim that behind the concrete markers, they are showered with racial epithets by their white supervisors. One foreman at Woodlawn, identified by several of the workers as a source of much of the abuse, has been let go but Woodlawn has refused to elaborate.
Last month, a group, which included Brooklyn Councilman Charles Barron (D - District 42), gathered outside of Woodlawn's E. 233rd Street gate; as on-duty workers saw the protesters coming, they shut the gates a few minutes early.
According to Ramon Jimenez of the South Bronx Community Congress, "Basically, the Black and Latino workers at Woodlawn Cemetery are being treated very poorly. There's a supervisor there that calls them terms like, "Spear-chucker," "Sp—" and "N—."
"People who complain," Jimenez continued, "are intimidated or threatened. That's why we're here." Jimenez also charges that workers who complain are often forced to dig graves by themselves in a desolate section of the massive cemetery.
Jimenez is also angered that there are no Black or Latino workers in supervisor positions, but only, "unskilled labor." Jimenez claims that Woodlawn has acknowledged their problems by hiring a law firm that conducted a $100,000 investigation, but charged that Woodlawn has refused to release its findings.
Jimenez claims, "We haven't heard because it's not a written report and they won't reveal what they said, and that's part of the problem. They're taking no action."
"This has been going on," claimed Vincente "Panama" Alba, of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights. "This particular group of workers has decided to put an end to it, but they should not have to live this way."
Councilman Barron, who has announced his plans to run for governor of New York, fumed, "This is racism at its ugliest. The dead cannot even rest in peace... this is the 21st Century and we're sick and tired of this madness."
Barron continued, "Unfortunately, Blacks and Latinos in this town are disrespected as workers... as a councilman, I am outraged that something like this can go down and I'm going to call on the Mayor (Bloomberg), I'm going to call on the Speaker of the City Council, [and tell them] that we need to have some hearings on this."
Asked where his fellow Bronx politicians were, Barron replied, "I don't know, I can only speak for myself, but they should be here because they should be concerned about the people of the Bronx."
In a statement released August 2 by the public relations firm Rubenstein Associates, John Toale, president and CEO of Woodlawn Cemetery, stated that after the five-month review, "It was concluded that we can do better, and so we shall—immediately."
Toale continued, "The internal review itself and the robust changes which flow from it reinforce our zero tolerance policy of discrimination anywhere on our grounds, as well as our commitment to improving supervisory skills and employing top quality personnel."
Toale added the cemetery will be "reconfiguring" its supervising staff, host training programs for supervisors and, "Other work practices will also be reevaluated and modified."
The statement added, "Everyday throughout New York, companies and institutions are faced with similar human resource challenges but chose to maintain their silence about the problem. Woodlwan Cemetery is not just another company. Our Board believes we have an obligation to let our community know that we have responded to the challenge, and we have found ourselves in need of change."
Woodlawn is a 147-year old non-sectarian cemetery on a 400-acre parcel of land where [there] lies the remains of such historical figures as Fiorello LaGuardia, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis.