Cy-Fair group uncovers history of African-American cemetery
Tucked between a Kroger and several buildings under construction are 15 acres of artifacts and grave sites representing the history of African-Americans shortly after their emancipation in the 1860s until the 1960s.
After years of analyzing grave markers, probing soil and processing findings at Olivewood Cemetery, a group at Lone Star College-CyFair has aided in the cemetery receiving a designation that represents the importance of the site and protecting the land it’s built on.
On May 21, Olivewood Cemetery was designated as a “Site of Memory Associated with the Slave Route” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization due in part to the contributions made by a group of LSC-CyFair students and professors.
Five other sites in Houston — Emancipation Park, the African-American Library at the Gregory School, Antioch Church, the Barbers Shop Property and Reverend Ned Pullum Property in Freedmen’s Town — were all designated as well and are the first of 70 to be designated due to contributions made by LSC-CyFair and others, said David Bruner, professor at LSC-CyFair heading the research.
Bruner said he initially began to study this site in 2004 for his archaeological dissertation and has since brought students to the site to record grave markers, probe soil and find buried artifacts in the cemetery. Bruner said the group has also uncovered The Red Ledger, a 120-year-old book with information about those buried in the cemetery, that they are currently scanning before posting it to the website for the nonprofit Descendants of Olivewood.
“This cemetery goes back to 1875, so just 10 years after emancipation,” he said. “This is one of the primary cemeteries used by people living in Freedman’s Town in the Fourth Ward. And it makes it a really critical resource because you have a lot of the prominent political leaders in the African-American community, at the time, buried out here.”
Bruner said he and his students receive funding from a yearly grant from LSC-CyFair for their research. Students were also paid by the Rutherford B. H. Yates Museum for processing artifacts from Freedman’s Town. Rutherford B. H. Yates has been very supportive of his group’s work, Bruner said.
Bruner said many cultures, design styles, and traditions can be viewed in the cemetery, including the intersection of religious traditions from West Africa with Christianity. Many of the graves are decorated with seashells or other objects reminiscent of the ocean.
“In the Yoruba region of West Africa, waterways are seen as the entryway to the world of the dead,” he said. “We see this all across the south and it’s collectively known as the old ways, but it’s the combination of belief systems. Some scholars in the early 1900s thought when the Africans were brought during the Transatlantic Slave Trade they completely forgot their past. That’s simply untrue. They imbued them in their lives.”
The LSC-CyFair group is now looking to find descendants of people buried in the cemetery, as well as their overall history. Grave markers are decorated in poems, symbols of organizations and causes of death that lead the group to clues about the history of the dead.
One woman buried in the cemetery lived to be 115-years-old, surviving through her freedom, her enslavement then and approximately another 30 years of freedom. Buchanan said it is important to uncover their history and document it due to the lack of black history, lost documents, and lack of documentation for many of the families. Some grave markers were overwritten, complicating research into who the grave belongs to.
Buck Buchanan, LSC-CyFair geography professor, has aided the group by letting them use drones and other equipment to get aerial views of the cemetery and find unmarked graves using thermal cameras.
“That thermal camera looks at the heat signature of the ground and you can actually see where there’s buried bases of grave markers because during the course of the day the ground absorbs solar radiation.,” Bruner said. “For every one grave out here, there’s probably nine or 10 burials where they’ve had wooden markers that have since fell.”
Jasmine Lee, former student of Bruner and board member for the Descendants of Olivewood, has continued to protect and research Olivewood Cemetery after graduating from LSC-CyFair. Lee is attending University of Houston soon, using her education to continue her research and archiving work.
She said the rich history available is important not only for the surrounding Black community, but to her as a Black woman. When asked why she volunteers her time for Olivewood, she pointed toward the skin on her arm and laughed. She said no one in her family had a name until 1870 and were listed on documents similar to farm animals like many slaves.
“I think a lot of people that live in Houston don’t realize that there’s this kind of history right here in the center of town,” Lee said. “With Olivewood you’re getting the people who were marginalized and brutalized in so many different ways. You’re getting their stories.”