Today, it’s hard to imagine the funeral of a former governor occurring without the requisite pomp and ritual reserved for the highest-ranking among us. From the body lying in state, to the funeral ceremony, to the slow procession to the gravesite for interment, rituals provide a way to honor and respect those who have served the public.
But in the case of P.B.S. Pinchback, former governor of Louisiana, racial segregation almost denied him his right to be buried in a cemetery plot he owned in New Orleans’ Metairie Cemetery in 1921. The Appeal, a black newspaper based in St. Paul, Minnesota, reported on this case on January 28, 1922.
Pinchback segued from lieutenant governor to governor of Louisiana for 36 days, from December 9, 1872 to January 13, 1873, while the former governor stepped down as he underwent impeachment proceedings (he was eventually found not guilty). Pinchback, whose father was a white Mississippi farmer and his mother a former slave, became the first African American to serve as a governor of a U.S. state. He was later elected to Congress, but white politicians contested the election and had it reversed. Pinchback then went to law school and became a federal marshal in New York City.
African Americans were denied civil rights while in life. But what did it mean to be denied those rights in death? How did Pinchback’s family feel when they were told only one car would be allowed in the cemetery? Or when they were told that they could not hold a graveside ceremony at a plot that they rightfully owned?
Historically, segregation beyond the grave forced African American communities to start their own funeral homes and cemeteries. A national association of funeral directors—the National Funeral Directors & Morticians Association, Inc.—was formed when African American professionals were not allowed to join The National Funeral Directors Association. Today, the two organizations still exist, with the NFDMA largely catering to African Americans in the funeral business.
View this issue of The Appeal as part of the Chronicling America project from the Library of Congress.