A federal trial is scheduled to start Monday over claims by six black-owned funeral homes that a Mississippi Gulf Coast coroner illegally discriminates in favor of two white-owned competitors.
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 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.
Starrett already threw a monkey wrench into the plaintiffs’ case by disallowing their plan for a lawyer to testify about a summary of 5,281 coroners’ files. The plaintiffs then scrambled to have paralegals prepare charts summarizing data, and Starrett has said he will allow most of those to be presented to a jury.
Plaintiffs argue there’s still plenty of evidence that Hargrove discriminated against them when directing who would get county-controlled business. 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.”
But Hargrove and Harrison County, which would have to pay damages, argue that in many cases, someone else chose. They say the deceased, their relatives and friends had made choices along racial lines, citing multiple indigent and autopsy files that show someone else besides Hargrove decided which funeral home should handle a body. When it comes to releasing bodies, Harrison County Board of Supervisors attorney Tim Holleman wrote that “in the vast majority of all of these files there is someone present who has priority over the coroner to make the decision as to which funeral home would handle the funeral services for their loved one.”
The county and Hargrove also say that a now-deceased pathologist whom Hargrove didn’t control did all his autopsies at white-owned funeral homes.
Starrett has also said the county can present evidence of racially divided funeral home choices from Harrison County deaths in which Hargrove didn’t officiate, as well as from other Mississippi counties.