Buried under the road

A longtime Chico Cemetery mystery finally sees the light

Willie Hyman of the Butte Community Coalition stands on a section of road inside the Chico Cemetery where some say bodies lie underneath.

Willie Hyman of the Butte Community Coalition stands on a section of road inside the Chico Cemetery where some say bodies lie underneath.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Cemetery history The Brusie family bought the Chico Cemetery from Victor Van Hook in 1994. Van Hook had been known for mismanaging money at both his funeral-home business and at the cemetery.

Cemeteries are, by nature, mysterious places. This story about the Chico Cemetery is no different. In fact, there’s at least one mystery that’s taken at least 30 years to be unearthed, and there are plenty of questions left to be answered about a number of African-American graves paved over to create a wider road sometime in the last century.

The southern end of Chico Cemetery is where you’ll find the oldest graves. John and Annie Bidwell are buried there, and others, going as far back as 1853, have been laid to rest there as well. These days, there is no “colored” section. But when Bidwell ran the place in the 1800s, he created just that. Nobody knows exactly where this section begins and ends, as cemetery records before 1900 burned up in a fire, but it’s safe to say it occupies an area directly to the west of a cemetery road that heads straight into Camellia Way, what used to be the main entrance and now dead-ends near Chico Junior High.

According to writings of the cemetery’s longtime historian, the now-deceased Larry Richardson, the “colored” section also lies underneath part of this road.

“… [The] oldest colored person who could remember said they covered old colored graves with the road,” Richardson wrote in a letter obtained by the CN&R that bears no date but likely is at least 35 years old. Most of his handwriting is legible, but some words, such as the first names of the people he spoke with, are not discernible. “[Ms.] Shearer … complained they tore out their concrete walk and relaid a concrete walk on the foot of their graves. This part of Main Drive has always been a bottle neck.”

That’s not all he had to say on the subject, either. Local cemetery historian Bob Keith, who is working on a book about Bidwell’s time running the Chico Cemetery, said he’d read other documents written by Richardson that reflected on the matter.

“Frank Nau was a cemetery manager, and according to Larry’s writing, he widened the road,” Keith said. “He covered up portions of the black cemetery and portions of Section 4.”

Many of the details, such as when Nau ran the cemetery, are as yet unknown. Keith’s best guess was that it was sometime during the 1950s or ’60s. There was an uproar at the time, according to Richardson. Since then people have either been tight-lipped on the subject or have just plain forgotten.

“I have never heard that,” said Amy Brusie. Her family, which owns Brusie Funeral Home and Cemeteries, currently runs the cemetery after buying the majority share of the Chico Cemetery Association in 1994. At least one person close to the cemetery staff, however, said they’d been strictly forbidden to talk about the paving over of African-American graves near Camellia Way.

“Everybody knows about it. They’re aware, but the attitude is that there’s no way it could ever be public,” one person said of the cemetery staff on the condition of anonymity.

“I’ve never ever told an employee to withhold history,” said Claudia Bartlett, cemetery manager, who added that she hadn’t heard anything about the road being paved over. “There’s a lot of history of the cemetery that we have no knowledge of, and we have no records … to prove if it is true or isn’t true.”

“It’s possible,” Brusie said of the paving over. “Maybe there weren’t any markers.”

Herein lies some of the mystery of the Chico Cemetery. Prior to 1905, there was no organized way of compiling accurate records of who was buried there. Although the place was structured, the land was still open to groups like the Chinese, Masons and Catholic Church to bury their own. “If the cemetery didn’t do it [bury a person], we don’t have records of it,” Brusie explained.

This may have been the first, but it wasn’t the last, time this happened at Chico Cemetery, according to Richardson. When Mangrove Avenue was widened in the 1970s, the cemetery, then owned by Victor Van Hook, was required to move a number of graves, including those in the Chinese section, which lies just west of the intersection with Palmetto Avenue.

“Larry contended that the headstones were moved, but not the bodies,” Keith said.

For people like Willie Hyman, who heads up the Butte Community Coalition, a civil-rights watchdog group, this is more than disrespectful.

“You can get angry regardless of the race,” said Hyman, while looking at a gravestone of a Civil War soldier from the colored troops. This stone marks the end of where the graves—possibly as many as 24—are covered over, according to a source connected to the cemetery. “If this is true, I’d like to see all this dug up.”

The coalition was the first to get wind of the story after receiving a phone call from a concerned citizen, the same one who brought Hyman and this reporter to the cemetery’s disputed road. Hyman attempted to contact relatives of Ms. Shearer and Ms. Davie, named in the Richardson letter obtained by the CN&R and Coalition, to no avail.

For local historians and friends of Richardson, however, there’s no question he believed this story to be true.

“Larry contended that the then-owner of the cemetery, Victor Van Hook, did not consider such acts a desecration of the graves, although he may have been in violation of cemetery code,” said David M. Brown, a Chico State professor who was good friends with Richardson.

“As far as the dates of the paving that was done (in a number of places, probably over more than the African American section) [they] probably occurred about this time,” he said, referring to the time Richardson worked at the cemetery, from 1959 until the early 1970s. He emphasized that his knowledge is second-hand, taken from conversations with his friend. “Larry was very astute, and I trusted his statements, but that doesn’t mean I can state this as a fact.”

Any real proof of what happened at Chico Cemetery decades ago is likely buried with Richardson, although his correspondences and detailed notes have been kept by a number of locals just as fascinated as he was with cemetery history.