There is a winding little road in Rock Hill that leads from West Main Street to Barber Memorial Cemetery.
It is the cemetery where Vietnam War hero Jesse Adams of Rock Hill – killed in combat before he ever got to meet his newborn son, Troy, in 1968 – is buried. It is where many who are black have always buried their dead, because it was the black cemetery during the decades when laws mandated that even in eternity, blacks be separate from whites.
At the back of the cemetery on Friday afternoon, just hours after York County’s child fatality task force met to discuss the Dec. 2 death of an infant, there were red rose petals on the ground. The petals led to the tiniest grave in the whole place.
The plot is not even 3 feet long, and the fresh, dark earth was mounded because there was more dirt than space after the tiny casket went in the ground. A dozen red roses lay flat on the soil. A metal/plastic sign was planted next to the grave. It read: “Ja’Leyah Shanel White. Date of Birth: September 2, 2013. Date of Death: December 2, 2013. Age: 3 Months.”
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There is no sign to say that Ja’Leyah’s mother, Mandi Coley, was seven months pregnant in July when she had to jump from the second floor balcony of her apartment to escape a fire. The “miracle baby” who survived that jump lived exactly three months.
A big, burly city worker named Tim was parked on the other side of the cemetery with other workers. Tim’s job is to dig graves in city cemeteries.
“Any time I have to do one for a baby, it just hurts,” said big Tim, who had to dig tiny Ja’Leyah’s grave.
The men went back to the business of caring for the grounds that house the dead – even infants.
Ja’Leyah was found unresponsive at home in bed with her father, Samuel White Jr., when her mother returned home from work late on Dec. 1, police have said.
The child fatality task force meeting – going on at the same time as Ja’Leyah’s funeral Friday morning – was a continuation of the investigation into her death. The task force is made up of prosecutors from the 16th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, Rock Hill police, coroner’s investigators, State Law Enforcement Division agents and state Department of Social Services officials.
DSS officials confirmed earlier this week that the agency already had been investigating the family before Ja’Leyah died, and that Ja’Leyah had been placed in the care of another family member before her death. DSS officials declined to say who that other family member was and why that person was not watching Ja’Leyah on Dec. 1.
No decisions were made Friday by the task force, and the agencies are continuing the inquest, Coroner Sabrina Gast said. Autopsy results that will determine the manner and cause of Ja’Leyah’s death are still not complete and could take weeks, she said.
But funerals and burials go on, even as investigations and autopsy testing continues.
Coley said after the burial that she and the family are doing the best they can to get through a difficult time.
On Dec. 1, Coley worked two shifts at a Bojangles’ restaurant and Wal-Mart before coming home to find her daughter dead. She told police she could not wake the baby’s father by pounding on the door and had to climb in the window. Coley called 911 after attempting CPR.
Rock Hill detectives are still investigating the death, a department spokesman said.
Neighbors at the Oak Hollow Apartments in south Rock Hill, where the baby died last week, raised $130 to help pay for the funeral. India Blanding is Ja’Leyah’s godmother, a neighbor and co-worker of Coley at Bojangles’. Restaurant workers brought flowers to the funeral and to the grave.
Blanding and so many other Oak Hollow residents who loved Ja’Leyah say they want answers from investigators about how and why Ja’Leyah died.
She talked Friday about her own 8-year-old son, who still asks what happened to Ja’Leyah. All Blanding can tell that heartbroken little boy is that, “Ja’Leyah is in a better place.”
“Ja’Leyah was a beautiful little girl,” she said. “She was just so little. She should be here right now, alive.”