Trial underway to determine if Jackson coroner treats Black-owned funeral homes differently
Carol Ozemhoya | OW Contributor | 4/17/2018, 9:37 a.m.
A federal trial is scheduled to start Monday in Jackson, Mississippi, over claims by six Black-owned funeral homes that a Mississippi Gulf Coast coroner illegally discriminates in favor of two white-owned competitors, reports the Clarion Ledger. The dispute revolves around cases where Harrison County pays for a body to be picked up, stored, autopsied or buried. The case alleges federal civil rights and state law violations by the county coroner against a backdrop of a business that remains starkly segregated by race in the Deep South. U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett, in pretrial rulings, has indicated the key question will be proving whether longtime Harrison County Coroner Gary Hargrove made the decisions about where to direct bodies in each instance. That suggests a long slog could be in store for the Gulfport court. “Plaintiffs’ burden is to prove that Hargrove discriminated when it fell to him to choose which funeral home to send a body,” Starrett wrote. “Part of that requires proof that Hargrove made the decision.” Evidence shows the white funeral homes got 93 percent of the total business from 2012 to 2016, while Black funeral homes got only 7 percent. That includes burials of indigents, autopsy cases and bodies released by the coroner. Plaintiffs have argued that Hargrove used public money to maintain racial segregation and that each funeral home should have gotten one-eighth of the business. But they say the real monetary losses are in funerals the Black-owned funeral homes didn't conduct, arguing that family members usually let a funeral home that received a body conduct services. The six Black funeral homes say they're owed $870,000 in lost profits from 2012 to 2016. The expert who prepared that estimate had originally put the Black funeral homes' losses at $6.4 million. One Black funeral home owner has testified that Hargrove once told her that “white bodies go to the white funeral homes and Black bodies go to the Black funeral home.”