Students at Lone Star College-CyFair work to get more recognition for Houston’s Olivewood Cemetery

December 8, 2017

Lone Star College-CyFair students are hoping their research will get Houston’s Olivewood Cemetery and Freedmen’s Town more recognition.

The college students are trying to get the historic sites on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Site listing, which now lists 23 historic sites across the United States.

“This research is an important thing to do because it is an important aspect of African American History in Harris County that otherwise isn’t being recorded,” said David Bruner, LSC-CyFair associate professor of anthropology. “My students are contributing a value to history by helping to records these aspects of a public cemetery.”

Recently, Bruner and nine anthropology and history career-track students attended a symposium on the World Heritage Site application process with Jane Landers, a member of a UNESCO International Scientific Committee on slave routes.

Landers is currently seeking potential sites and places related to the slave trade and slavery to nominate for the registry.

Bruner and his students were part of a team of scholars from Texas Southern University and University of Houston, which worked with the Yates Museum to gather material for the UNESCO nomination application.

Descendants of Olivewood is a nonprofit that manages the Olivewood Cemetery and students of Bruner are working with the organization through the historic cemetery preservation course and are receiving credit for their research.

The college believes that community service helps meet community needs through volunteer efforts. Service learning also meets those needs, but students use the service experience as a foundation to examine themselves, their society, and their future.

One of the goals of the Descendants of Olivewood is to encourage the local community to learn more about the rich history of the cemetery and those who are interred there. The cemetery is located against a bend of White Oak Bayou.

“This one of Houston’s untapped and unrecorded historical resources, but it is an absolutely critical historical resource. The students are active agents in helping record the resources” Bruner said. “Not only are they learning about African American history in Harris County, but they are also learning about the distinctive unique nature of the Olivewood Cemetery.”

Olivewood Cemetery, which spans six acres, is Houston’s first incorporated African-American burial ground, established 10 years after the emancipation of slaves in 1865. Some of the grave markers in the cemetery are adorned with ocean shells, metal pipes, and reversed script, resembling a combination of religious West African and Anglo-European belief systems.

“The upright pipes also are symbolic components of a belief system that comes from West Africa. What is really singular about the Olivewood Cemetery is the use of reversed writing of backwards letters and text on the grave markers,” Bruner said. “This is something else that symbolically can find its roots, its origin points, in West Africa.”

Students are recording all the grave markers in Olivewood with the goal of surveying 100 percent of everyone buried there and creating a database that will be housed at LSC-CyFair and the African American Library at Gregory School. The two-story, 20,000-square-foot former elementary school was named after Edgar M. Gregory, a Union officer and assistant commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau for the Texas area.

To conduct their research, students are using non-intrusive technology, such as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV or drones) for aerial mapping, a thermal camera that can detect objects in the soil and Ground Penetrating Radar that is used after the camera picks up on possible grave stones just beneath the surface. LSC officials confirm that the equipment was funded through a Lone Star College grant.

Kenneth Purcell is an honor student who has used drones for aerial mapping and ground penetrating radar to help look for unmarked graves at Olivewood.

“One of the most interesting things I’ve learned while conducting research is the historic and cultural value of the cemetery itself and the role it plays in the history of Texas,” Purcell said. “Also, the ability on how to use new technology and upcoming technology in a field that helps to progress this history and further information that is overlooked by most textbooks and records.”

In addition to conducting research at the cemetery, Bruner is teaching his students as well as some from disciplines such as history and geography, archaeological survey techniques in Freedmen’s Town, an African-American community that was established after the U.S. Civil War. It is located in Freedmen’s Town, a historic district in Houston’s Fourth Ward.

The town is historic district due to intact historical structures and properties with archaeological components. The students are using GPR to determine locations for further excavations of artifacts.

The organization that is leading the UNESCO application is the Rutherford B.H. Yates Museum located in the Freedmen community.

“For sites stretching from Galveston to Harris County what I’m doing, my students, and along with scholars from Harris County including the University of Houston is we are all contributing parts to the application process. Other UNESCO World Heritage site include the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon, and Mesa Verde,” Bruner said. “There’s only one other site in Texas located outside of San Antonio, the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, but African American history and heritage is an equal value. It is a historical resource that is under-represented in the history books. It’s something that needs to be recorded, saved, and preserved. So, Lone Star students are helping in that process.”

The research is going to be a multi-semester project. The plan is to record the entire cemetery landscape including unmarked graves. Bruner’s students are take interest in the historical aspect of the research as well shedding light on a group of people that are not typically given attention.

“My hopes are that the research impacts the community by bringing more attention from the community to the cemetery and all the history that involves it surrounding African American history, Houston, and Harris County,” Purcell said. “I also hope it helps to preserve these sites that are in much need of preservation because they are overlooked, like Olivewood was for some time.”

Want to know more?

Descendants of Olivewood