Church row over `white' cemetery

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An attempt by a Southern Baptist church in rural Georgia to have the body of a mixed-race infant disinterred just days after its burial to keep its cemetery "100-per-cent white" has re-ignited racial anger in the American deep south.

The controversy over the fate of the body of Whitney Johnson, who died 19 hours after birth, has cast an unwelcome pall over the Protestant Southern Baptist Convention which was founded 150 years ago partly in defence of American slavery.

Whitney's family was informed by the Barnett's Creek Baptist Church in Thomasville, Georgia, that the girl's funeral had been a mistake and that the body would have to be disinterred and buried elsewhere. Whitney's mother, Jaime Wireman, is white, and her father, Jeffrey Johnson, is black.

The astonishing message was apparently delivered by Logan Lewis, the pastor of the church. "He said they don't allow half-breeds in their cemetery," the baby's grandmother said. "[The pastor] said: `That's a 100-per-cent white cemetery'."

Mr Lewis was quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as saying: "There's not any mixing of cemeteries anywhere in this area. If someone white asked to be buried in a black cemetery, he'd be a laughing stock."

The church also claimed that it had been unaware of the race of the baby until it became obvious at the open-casket funeral. The pastor has since written to the funeral home to complain about "being deceived".

Such has been the publicity surrounding the affair, that the church has backed down and will allow Whitney to remain at rest alongside other deceased members of the Wireman family. But for the Baptist Convention, which last year issued a resolution to "repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery", the damage is done.