FAIRMONT — On the eve of a memorial service for local civil right leader Amy Rose Parks, City of Fairmont officials denied her family’s request to hold a memorial service at Windmill Park.
Parks, 80, passed away from breast cancer last week at her Chesapeake community home. Her obituary had been published noting the memorial service would be at the park she was instrumental in making a center of the local African-American community. Instead, family members will gather in private for graveside services at Evergreen cemetery today.
The denial, issued by Fairmont City Attorney Kevin Sansalone, came despite pleas from several public officials to allow the service to be conducted. Fairmont Mayor Brad Merrifield, Marion County Health Department Administrator Lloyd White, an array of locally-elected state government representatives and Gov. Jim Justice’s office had requested the city to allow the memorial service to take place.
Parks’ daughter, Romelia Hodges, a commissioner with the COVID-19 West Virginia African-American Task Force and a leader in regional coronavirus testing events since the beginning of the pandemic, had planned a service that would follow all COVID-19 guidelines, she said.
Hodges contends she was duped by Sansalone, whom she alleges was looking for a reason to prohibit the memorial service.
“(Sansalone) said he would approve a 25-person funeral. I said that my family was larger and that those guidelines were for social gatherings. He said the city manager could override the governor’s orders and he didn’t care what the governor says,” Hodges said in an email distributed to several local officials. “(Sansalone) called back a few minutes later and asked me how many people. I said 40. He said okay we will take care of it. I now fully (believe) Mr. Sansalone called me back and had me place a (higher) number so that he could find another reason to deny our request,” Hodges said.
Valerie Means, Fairmont’s city manager, is on personal leave this week and did not return phone calls. Priscilla Hamilton was referred to as “acting city manager” in Means’ absence, but the city has no such position listed in its directory.
When contacted by phone on Tuesday for clarity on why the family’s request was denied, Sansalone told a reporter “I have no comments for you” and hung up. When contacted again Wednesday, repeated calls to Sansalone’s office were not returned.
Hodges said she learned of her application’s denial on Wednesday morning, less than a day before her mother’s memorial service was set to be held.
“Mr. Sansalone stated he sent an email,” Hodges said. She said she’d asked “Mr. Sansalone to (send) the email he sent to me. He said he could not find it.”
Hodges said she finds the action “callus and shrewd from the city during a very sensitive time in my family’s life.”
“I find this action by the city absolutely appalling and disgusting that a family has do deal with this kind of discord from the city when trying to follow CDC guidelines and that of the governor for special events,” Hodges said. “I am disgusted at the treatment we have received.”
Hodges also said she felt the denial “is discriminatory and that the city has a personal vendetta against me for exposing the disparity (among African-Americans) of the COVID here in Fairmont.”
In a letter to Sansalone dated yesterday, White, who is the county’s foremost expert on COVID-19, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend specifically the type of memorial service Hodges was planning for her mother.
“CDC recommends holding outdoor funerals as a method to decrease the risk of disease transmission as it is a safer alternative to indoor services due to being able to practice social distancing and being in a well-ventilated space. Also, funerals are considered as essential business under the Governor’s executive orders as long as they can maintain social distancing and wear face coverings,” White wrote to Sansalone.
White said he was “confident the service can be held in a responsible way that will meet all safety guidelines.”
“I have worked with Mrs. Hodges on many occasions and she is very passionate and very committed to doing the right things to decrease the risk of COVID-19 spread. I have absolutely no concerns that proper precaution will not be followed and that all necessary steps will be taken to ensure the health and safety of all attendees. Mrs. Hodges is always advocating for doing the right things and she knows what to do and how to do it. Therefore, from a public heath standpoint this office sees no reason why the services would not be permitted to take place as planned,” White said.
Following her mother’s memorial service, Hodges said she will “get in contact with every government official that I possibly can to scream from the mountaintop so this doesn’t happen to any individual again.”
“There are people dying in West Virginia every day. If their family chooses to save the lives of the living by having a service outdoors, it should be something that is approved by that city and not be some long, drawn-out difficult process. It’s disgusting,” Hodges said.
Amy Rose Parks was a founding member of Meals on Wheels, the Marion County Rescue Squad and the Soup Opera. She was a driving force behind the formation of the Marion County Parks and Recreation Commission and helped build Windmill Park, Hodges said.
Parks guided national civil rights policy and testified before Congress during the 1970s and 1980s. She helped implement change that bought about free school lunches, free textbooks, and clothing vouchers for low-income children. She was part of negotiations in Iran with Ayatollah Khomeini to help free American hostages.