Members of an all-white Baptist church that was founded before the Civil War are angry over a decision by their deacons to remove a mixed-race baby from their cemetery.
On Wednesday, leaders of the rural south Georgia church reluctantly agreed to leave the body of Whitney Elaine Johnson in the cemetery, where no blacks are buried.
“For the record, we are not going to exhume the baby,” the Rev. Leon VanLandingham said. VanLandingham, the part-time pastor at Barnetts Creek Baptist Church, wouldn’t answer further questions about the racial policies of the church, whose 200 members are white.
Last Friday, Whitney was buried at the cemetery next to her great-grandfather, A.C. Wireman.
Whitney was born without a completely formed skull March 18. She died 19 hours later.
The baby’s mother, 18-year-old Jamie Wireman, is white and her father, 25-year-old Jeffrey Johnson, is black.
Wireman, who lives with the baby’s father near Thomasville, had wanted the infant buried in the family plot “so she wouldn’t be alone.”
The crisis began Sunday, when the church’s seven deacons voted unanimously to remove the infant’s body after learning the baby had a black father.
Wireman’s mother, Sylvia Leverett, said deacon Logan Lewis told her that church policy since the 1800s has barred minorities from the cemetery.
The decision to remove the remains has divided Wireman’s family and the church. The burial lot is owned by Wireman’s grandmother, Lila Wireman, an active church member who sided with the deacons’ initial decision.
Wireman, who has attended the church only occasionally, said she was shocked at the proposed exhumation because VanLandingham has regularly preached against racism and hatred.
“They just didn’t seem like that,” she said. “Maybe that’s why God took her from me, to let people know what’s going on now.”
Johnson said, “You don’t bury nobody and then dig ‘em up. That’s not right.”
Thomasville is known for its barbecue stands, its annual rose festival and its high school football programs, which have produced several professional players as well as former Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward, now with basketball’s New York Knicks. Nearly 40 percent of the city’s 19,000 residents are black.
Gary Cooper, a bail bondsman who teaches Sunday school at the church, said church members had no idea what was going on.
“I can assure you on behalf of the congregation that the whole church didn’t know about this situation,” he said Wednesday. “God is no respecter of persons. Man looks on the outside but God looks on the inside.”