Grave Importance

Old cemeteries rarely die. They just get buried under weeds, development and indifference.

"HARRISBURG CEMETARY," announced the sign on the chain-link fence. "NO DUMPING," said another. I parked on the crunchy grass outside the gate and peered at the modest scattered markers, at the graves of emancipated slaves, black cowboys and soldiers. The place wasn't much to look at, but better than I expected.

Houston has never cared much about its history; it's still an adolescent city, more interested in the future than in the past. Old cemeteries, like old buildings, quietly fall prey to development. Left untended, gravestones disappear: They sink into the gumbo soil, or are swallowed by subtropical vines and weeds, or stolen by teenage boys who think death is a joke.

Fifteen years ago, the Harrisburg-Jackson Cemetery, as it's officially known, was believed to have been swallowed, like so many other old cemeteries. Local historians and genealogists considered it "lost"; they believed its markers had disappeared and the land had been redeveloped. David Pomeroy, author of Pasadena: The Early Years, searched five years for the grave of Steve Ray, a legendary cowboy from the Sam Allen ranch. But when Pomeroy drove past the site near Telephone Road, he saw nothing that looked like a cemetery. He didn't recognize the unfenced no-man's-land, sandwiched between a warehouse and a row of working-class homes.

Ruben Muñoz has done most of the work to reclaim this cemetery.
Deron Neblett
Ruben Muñoz has done most of the work to reclaim this cemetery.

The cemetery's neighbors considered the place dangerous. Weeds and sapling trees competed with 14-foot bamboo. Snakes infested the two-acre wilderness. Addicts littered the grounds with used syringes, and thieves abandoned cars, stripped of anything that could be sold. Sometimes neighbors found signs of voodoo: dead black cats, bits of orange peel. Vandals broke and stole gravestones. Someone even dug open the grave of Hellen Williams. The neighbors believed that a dealer hid drugs inside her casket.

But in 1988, the lot was transformed. Alex Salazar, a freshman at Milby High School, adopted the place to earn extra credit for his history class. He photographed its graves and recruited volunteers -- the Southeast Harrisburg Civic Club, a Boy Scout troop and the Texas National Guard -- to help him clean it.

Pomeroy remembers his excitement when he spotted graves where head-high cane had stood. He got out of his car and began examining the markers. "Lo and behold," he remembers, "there's Steve Ray's headstone."

And there was much more. The unmarked graves may date back as far as the 1840s, when slaves were used to build the railroad that marks the cemetery's back boundary; the oldest headstone belongs to Sally Prior, who died in 1883. A.C. Winfree, a Buffalo Soldier who also served in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, is buried there, as is Tom Blue, a slave who served Sam Houston during the Battle of San Jacinto and, in 1862, ran away to Mexico and freedom.

Channel 13 and The Houston Post carried stories about the cemetery cleanup. A group raised money for a historical marker. And -- crucially -- volunteers continued to maintain the place, fighting back the subtropical wilds.

But after about a year, the excitement died. The volunteers stopped mowing. In a matter of weeks, weeds again hid the graves. In a matter of months, the bamboo regained its old height. The snakes and the trash and the criminals followed.

Historians didn't consider the Harrisburg-Jackson Cemetery "lost" anymore. But it wasn't exactly "found," either.

Ruben Muñoz meets me by the cemetery gate. Ruben wears the gimme cap of someone who spends much of his time in the sun, and his hard black work shoes show an acquaintance with heavy machinery. He doesn't speak much English; I speak even less Spanish. We smile and try to talk, but we're both relieved to see Chris Varela come loping through the cemetery.

Chris is a jovial history buff, younger than Ruben by about 30 years, and able to translate for us. Chris's interest in Harrisburg-Jackson is intellectual: Driving past a few years ago, he noticed a sign and felt the pull of a project worth researching. Ruben's interest in the place dates back further, and is more direct: About eight years ago, after he retired, he and his wife rented the house next door.

In a way, Ruben fits neatly into Harrisburg's history. Harrisburg was established in 1825 by whites, who brought with them slave labor. By 1905 the town had become mostly black. Now part of Houston, the area is mostly Hispanic. Papaya trees grow in the backyards next to the cemetery, and Spanish is more common than English.

At first Ruben mowed the little patch of cemetery directly behind the house and figured that was enough. The place wasn't his responsibility; the graves didn't contain his ancestors. But one day a toddler got lost, and Ruben listened to searchers calling the child's name in the cane. The cemetery, he realized, was dangerous.

Soon after that, he began fighting the bamboo; that battle would take years. As Ruben was clearing the land, he found a small headstone lodged, inexplicably, in the branches of a tree. "H.H. Jackson," said the little white tablet. "Born August 29, 1905/Died December 23, 1912." Ruben leaned the boy's stone against the larger gravestone of Henry Jackson, his father.

Ruben found other gravestones sunk into the ground, out of sight; Chris helped him pull them out and return them to their rightful places. Chris also helped arrange the permanent loan of the riding mower that Ruben uses to maintain the hummocky grounds. (The little valleys, so hard on a mower, are probably unmarked gravesites.)

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