(CAMILLA, Ga.) — For the better part of a century, a fence separated blacks from whites in their final resting place in a small Georgia town.
That all changed last week with the dismantling of the rusty wire fence in the publicly-owned Oakview Cemetery in Camilla, a small city in Georgia’s far southwest corner near the Alabama and Florida borders.
Camilla Mayor Rufus Davis, who in 2015 became the first African-American elected to the post, said the city took the fence down Thursday after his attorney demanded they do so immediately.
“It was my hope that we could have worked together, bringing the community together — both black and white — to partake in a cathartic exercise, removing this ugly symbol of segregation and unifying our community. Unfortunately, the city did not give us advance notice,” the mayor said in a statement. “However, at the end of the day, I am happy to see the fence coming down.”
Since Davis’ election two years ago, tensions have run high in the town, according to local media reports. Nearly 70 percent of Camilla’s 5,000 residents are black, according to recent Census data.
Davis and newly-elected City Council member Venterra Pollard have threatened to boycott City Council meetings unless city officials address what they believe are discrimination and racial issues within the local government, local media reports say. Among other things, the mayor has called for increasing the number of black employees in Camilla’s City Hall and on its police force.
ABC News reached out to the police chief and other members of the Camilla City Council but did not immediately hear back.
Last month, Davis retained civil rights attorney Ben Crump to represent him in his efforts to end what he views as “segregationist practices,” including the continued use of the controversial cemetery fence.
On Thursday, Davis, Crump and Pollard held hands in victory with African-American activist and Camilla resident Gwen Lillian Thomas as the fence that for more than 85 years, according to Crump’s office, divided where blacks and whites are buried.
“When I first came to visit the Camilla cemetery, Ms. Gwen Lillian Thomas, a 70-year-old African-American activist, said when she was born in this hometown the fence was already erected. She prayed that she would live to see the day this fence would be taken down,” Crump said in a statement Thursday. “I am so happy we were able to ensure that she could see this symbol of racism destroyed in her lifetime.”
While Davis lauded the removal of the cemetery fence, which he described as “a powerful symbol of segregation,” he said there’s much more work to be done in Camilla.
“Although this symbol is being removed, it has not desegregated our cemetery nor has it removed the discrimination that is still alive today in Camilla,” he said. “We will continue to take steps forward to integrate our city government in terms of police officers, jobs at City Hall, our work force and more.”
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