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News / Nation & World

Family sues San Diego cemetery after remains of Juneteenth trailblazer missing from burial plot

Late Black businessman helped popularize holiday in Southern California city

By Associated Press
Published: June 18, 2023, 4:05pm

SAN DIEGO — Relatives of a late Black businessman who helped popularize Juneteenth in San Diego are suing a cemetery after his remains were reported missing from the family’s burial plot.

Greenwood Memorial Park and Mortuary informed the family that Sidney Cooper’s body and casket were not in the plot where he was supposed to have been buried more than two decades ago. Cemetery staff discovered it was empty as they prepared to bury Cooper’s wife, Thelma, who died in March.

Staff said they did not know the whereabouts of Cooper’s remains, their daughter, Lana Cooper-Jones, told the San Diego Union-Tribune.

“I was absolutely distraught,” Cooper-Jones said Friday of the moment she learned her father’s body was missing. “It was like losing my father again, as well as my mom.”

Greenwood said it was working to rectify the problem.

“While the placement of this family’s loved one occurred over 20 years ago under previous ownership and management, we recently discovered an issue with placement and are diligently working to confirm the placement of the loved one,” the cemetery said in a statement. “Our hope is to reunite the loved ones as intended as soon as possible.”

The lawsuit filed Friday seeks to force the cemetery to find the patriarch’s remains and compensate the children for damages. The court filing was aimed to coincide with Saturday’s Cooper Family Foundation Juneteenth Freedom Festival at San Diego’s Memorial Park.

Cooper, who was 71 when he died in 2001, promoted Juneteenth for decades in his unofficial and affectionate role as “Mayor of Imperial Avenue,” near where he ran businesses including a barbershop and a produce store.

The family’s Juneteenth celebrations grew from small events in the parking lot of Cooper’s store to larger gatherings at a city park.

After his death, the family created the foundation to carry on his legacy and celebrate the Juneteenth festival. The June 19 holiday marks the day in 1865 when word of the Emancipation Proclamation finally reached the final slave holdout of Galveston, Texas, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the order freeing enslaved Black people.

Cooper-Jones told the Union Tribune that when her father died, the family held a graveside service, but they didn’t witness his casket being lowered into the ground.

According to the family and the attorneys, cemetery officials have said they might have an idea where his casket was buried. An underground probe detected the presence of a casket in a different plot that’s supposed to be empty, according to the family’s attorneys. The family wants that body exhumed and the DNA tested.