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Grave undertaking: efforts to preserve earliest black cemetery

A 1913 angel still stands in Olivewood Cemetery as October dusk creeps under old oaks.

Story and photos by John Perry

Near a bend in White Oak Bayou where Spanish moss hangs from huge oak trees, there’s a section of the past where granite angels and lions stand proud but broken. Weighted with time, headstones tilt sideways, and inscribed names are effaced by years of wind, rain and neglect. A place haunted by relentless overgrowth and ever-encroaching erosion.

Margott Williams’ great-great grandfather, a freed slave, is buried there with her great-grandmother, grandfather and two uncles. They share ground with other freed slaves and some of Houston’s earliest black residents.

Located in the First and Sixth wards northwest of downtown, Olivewood Cemetery is a six-acre resting place without ownership but with plenty of history.

The cemetery is the earliest known graveyard for blacks in Houston, said Thomas McWhorter, historic neighborhoods director for the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance.

“It’s like an open history book with pages written on stone and marble,” he said. “It yields valuable historical and cultural information about the area’s inhabitants when no written records can be found.”

County records list Olivewood as abandoned, McWhorter said. “Without ownership by a church or the county, a cemetery isn’t cared for. It can get overgrown and forgotten.

“Olivewood is an irreplaceable historic jewel that deserves preservation.”

Williams, 43, agrees. In 2003, the Midtown resident founded the Decedents of Olivewood to take guardianship of the cemetery, to provide care and to protect its historical significance.

The Decedents of Olivewood is a nonprofit organization, which enables Williams to raise nontaxable revenue for preservation.

Rev. A.F. Jackson's headstone reads, 'MURDERED AT DALLAS TEX Dec. 12, 1889.'

Williams leads 15 to 20 volunteers cleaning debris, killing weeds and attacking neglect with rakes, hoes and hedging shears.

“We want to put up a good fence and hire a groundskeeper,” she said.

“I’m hoping one day it will be a tranquil park where people can come to enjoy the peace and quiet and remember the history.”

Her group is also trying to restore the grave markers and locate unmarked graves. One of the more intriguing epitaphs reads, “Murdered Dec. 12, 1889.”

McWhorter said continuous overgrowth, erosion and course changes in White Oak Bayou have made it difficult to determine some gravesites.

“These people didn’t have vaults,” said McWhorter, a trained archeologist. “If they had coffins at all, they were wooden and long-since decayed.”

Over the years, there have been numerous reports of mysterious after-dark sightings and strange movements within the graveyard.

Louis Aulbach, a Finance and Administration division manager, heard those stories while working on his soon-to-be-completed book, “Buffalo Bayou: An Echo of Houston’s Wilderness Beginnings.”

“But I remain skeptical,” he said. “It seems people think a cemetery should be haunted, so they make it so. But if they want to scare themselves silly with stories, it’s up to them.”

Cathi Bunn, a paranormal investigator, began exploring Olivewood in 1999. One moonlit midnight, Bunn said she videotaped the ghost of Mary White, buried in 1888, hovering above her headstone.

Intrigued by the anecdotes, Williams stayed late Halloween night, 2004.

“Only haunting I saw were from two big field mice,” she said.

Haunted or not, Aulbach said the important thing is for people to know about Olivewood and its significance.

“It’s such a great piece of Houston’s history that was almost lost,” he said.























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