More than a year ago, an unidentified woman’s body was found on a road, her dark hair shorn off, a plastic bag taped around her head, her hands severed. She had been strangled and tossed away by her killer.
Today, the crime remains unsolved, the murder victim’s name is still unknown and efforts to bury her have set off controversy in Waller County—a rural area just west of Houston that is long roiled by racial divisions.
The victim is white, while the funeral home and cemetery that a justice of the peace initially chose to handle her burial in Hempstead are historically black.
But Waller County Commissioners Court balked at paying for that burial. When activists started raising questions about the county’s hesitation at burying the woman in a black cemetery, the commissioners asked a white-owned funeral home in Waller to handle arrangements.
That outraged Walter Pendleton, a local black minister who filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Hempstead that forced it to integrate its public cemeteries.
“I’m just appalled right now. I can’t believe this county stooped that low,” he said. “The county overstepped its boundary to get a white funeral home to pick up the body so that it could not be buried in a black cemetery.”
The victim would be the first known white person buried in a black cemetery in Waller County. Since March 25, Waller County has paid neighboring Harris County $50 a day to store the body.
“I have never seen such defiance and determination to protect a segregated system,” said DeWayne Charleston, the Waller County justice of the peace who first ordered the black funeral home to handle the arrangements.
Rather, he attributed the delay in burial to the black funeral home director’s insistence that the county sign a letter guaranteeing payment. Ralston said that went against county policy, and instead contacted another funeral home to handle the arrangements.
Charleston said he wasn’t trying to cause trouble when he ordered the black funeral home to handle arrangements for the woman. He was simply struck by the brutality of the crime and the poignancy of a murder victim with no family to claim her.
“It was gruesome and that no one identified her or claimed her makes it more horrific,” Charleston said. “I thought that this woman, if nothing else, was going to have the distinction of integrating Waller County cemeteries.”