COMPTON — After 18 months, an abandoned cemetery here has a new owner and new hope for preserving the thousands of people whose remains are buried there.
“This started on Mother’s Day 2020 when I had to hop the fence to gain entrance to the cemetery to visit my mother, sisters and grandmothers,” Celestinia Bishop recalls. “There was me and a man who also had family buried there and we made a decision to clean up the property.
“I want to thank God and all the kind spirits of Woodlawn,” Bishop added. “I appreciate all the volunteers and new Woodlawn family that has made my vision a reality, including our supporters and my husband.”
Woodlawn Cemetery was established in 1871. It is one of the oldest cemeteries in Los Angeles County and was named a historic landmark in 1946.
Eighteen Civil War veterans are buried here along with Bishop’s family members, which is why she started the journey to gain control of the property.
The cemetery has changed ownership many times over the years. The last owner, Ruben Suarez, allowed the property to fall into disrepair.
In April 2019, the state Attorney General’s Office filed an amended accusation with the Department of Consumer Affairs after the State Cemetery and Funeral Bureau reportedly gave Suarez “repeated warnings and requests to bring the cemetery grounds into good order.”
The filing noted Woodlawn was “ordered to stop dis-internments for relocation and leaving residual human remains on the surface” of the cemetery
According to the attorney general’s filing, Suarez’s cemetery manager license expired in 2017.
The grounds had no running water, after the city shut it off the water supply due to nonpayment of water bills.
Bishop didn’t wait for someone to approach her to begin the restoration process. She went into her own pocket and received donations to turn things around.
She started a Facebook campaign on her page “Demanding A Change at Woodlawn cemetery, where she would proudly show off before and after photos and videos of the work being done.
She would regularly go “live” and thank her many supporters and volunteers, some who came from as far away as the Inland Empire, to assist with the cleanup.
“I invested a lot of my savings into this property to ensure my family and the other families were treated with dignity and respect,” Bishop said.
She has been honored by the Compton City Council and Assemblyman Mike Gipson for her efforts that have led to the property being transferred to her nonprofit, One Section At A Time.
“I am the first Black woman in Los Angeles County to own a cemetery,” Bishop said.
She said she worked with County Assessor Jeffrey Prang’s office to resolve delinquent property taxes, and found his office cooperative byreducing a large part of the bill.
Bishop had to raise $20,000 within 30 days to bring the property current.
“Thanks to our GoFundMe and two significant donations, we made our goal,” said Bishop, during one of her regular updates to the families and supporters.
On Nov. 2, Bishop appeared in front of the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder’s office with the paperwork and the community cried with her when her hard work culminated with ownership to the nearly 11 acre site.
“What a perfect day,” Bishop wrote on her Facebook page. A day dedicated to “all souls” and the day Woodlawn became ours the people, the families, the community and after 18 long months of stressful, heartache and back-breaking labor and love, the many smiles, all the happy tears, the embrace of hugs from family members truly happy change has come to Woodlawn and cheers from families that’s unable to make a visit, We did it.”
Bishop says she will continue to operate in transparency, and continues to host weekly meetings, via Zoom, to keep the families and community in the loop of events and updates.
Woodlawn Celestial Gardens is located at 1715 W. Greenleaf Blvd. It is open Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“I know my mother is so proud of me,” Bishop said.
2 Urban Girls is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers the Compton and Inglewood areas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.