Woodlawn Cemetery in Compton, now Woodlawn Celestial Gardens, is turning trauma into triumph

Celestina Bishop turned her pain into purpose after finding that the grounds her mother and family were buried had been abandoned at Woodlawn Cemetery

Celestina Bishop has been riding a wave of emotions for the last 19 months. On Mother’s Day 2020, she visited Woodlawn Cemetery in Compton, California, only to find the grounds where her mother and family were buried had been abandoned. 

Overgrown weeds and tree branches were covering her mother’s grave and tombstone, which was enough to drive Bishop to tears. After posting a heart-wrenching video to Facebook, showing a whole cemetery in disarray, Bishop got to work.

“When I came to clean up I was not cleaning up just for my family, I was cleaning up for everybody,” Bishop shared in an interview with theGrio. “We started at the entrance and the plan was to work our way around — one section at a time — which is how I got the name of one of my non-profits.”

Celestina Bishop with volunteer Rocio Alvarado (Credit Bishop)

When she was 2 years old, Bishop was the only one spared after her mother and three sisters were killed in their South Central home. Bishop undertook such a huge responsibility because she feels deeply connected to the cemetery where her family is buried. 

Initially, Bishop tried contacting Woodlawn’s owner, but the number listed had been disconnected. When she did finally make contact, he saw the progress she was making and allowed her full access to the property. 

“I did not clean up the cemetery myself, it was a variety of people. I spearheaded the movement and when you are a great leader people follow,” said Bishop. “Not follow because they are looking for something to look up to, they are looking for something to be a part of.”

Celestina Bishop with L.A County Assessor Jeff Prang (Photo via Jeff Prang)

As Bishop started to become familiar with the world of cemetery management and bookkeeping, she says she does not put all the blame on the previous owner.  

The idea of her owning the cemetery came up really early in the restoring process. The previous owner told Bishop that he was looking to donate the property to a local non-profit. She asked him to give her three months to get her paperwork together to form her non-profit. 

One important detail was left out, however, which was that the property had an enormous back tax bill. Bishop was able to get a portion of these fees reduced but was still forced to come up with $20,000. 

She initially felt disappointed and betrayed by the previous owner but thankfully, she was able to pay off the taxes in October. 

A rededication ceremony is planned for Jan. 2022 to honor family and friends buried at the cemetery. The day is also set to officially announce the new name, as well as the successful transferring of the property to Bishop’s non-profit, Woodlawn Celestial Gardens. 

Unfortunately, the City of Compton has not approved a parking permit request. Bishop says the city continues to provide little assistance or support for her endeavors of saving a local cemetery. 

Founded in 1870 as Compton Rural Cemetery, Woodlawn is one of the oldest cemeteries in Los Angeles County and was named a cultural landmark in 1946. The cemetery is a resting place for people ranging from civil war veterans to Compton pioneers and local families. 

Los Angeles Black Panther Minister of Defense Alprentice Bunchy Carter is buried at Woodlawn, along with Francis Townsend, who spearheaded the concept that would become social security.

“You have entertainers, negro league players, actors, and my family who is buried in this cemetery,” said Bishop. “And no one cared.”

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