Wilbert Oliver et al. vs. Escude Funeral Homes, Inc., et al.
When Martha Pierre Oliver died in 1971, her son, Wilbert Oliver, approached the white-owned Escude Funeral Home, the only mortuary in his hometown of Mansura, La. The firm agreed to embalm his mother but, because she was black, refused to allow her wake to be held on its premises. Hixson Brothers Funeral Home, the only other mortuary in the parish, would not handle black bodies at all.
The indignity was compounded by the fact that Oliver's mother, the community midwife, had delivered and nursed some of the Escude children and was considered a family friend.
No local lawyers would represent him, so Oliver's priest, Father August Thompson, contacted the SPLC, which agreed to take the case.
Filed on Sept. 13, 1973, in federal court in Alexandria, La., the class action alleged that the Escude and Hixson Brothers funeral homes violated a federal law prohibiting discrimination against blacks in contracts. The facts presented by the SPLC were not disputed, and a federal judge handed down a summary judgment within a month that declared the undertakers' actions unconstitutional.
The court's decree guaranteed that blacks would have access to the same funeral services offered to whites, at the same prices. Although the practice by white undertakers of refusing to embalm or bury blacks was common throughout the South, it had never before been challenged in court. The ruling had the practical effect of forcing funeral homes throughout the nation to provide equal services to blacks and whites.
Raised in Mansura, a town of 1,600 about 70 miles northwest of Baton Rouge, Oliver was a laborer who lost his left arm in a Spanish moss-cleaning machine early in life. Despite his injury, Oliver earned a living cutting sugar cane and raising vegetables. He and his wife reared 11 children.
"He was just an ordinary man, one of the common people and not a crusader," said Father Thompson. "But it is usually the ordinary people who make a difference by doing extraordinary things. We never know what we are capable of doing until we do it."