Grave Importance

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

Someone, maybe a crew of juvenile probationers, appears to have cleaned the place recently. The weeds have been mowed low. Chris points to a tower of trash bags heaped on the west side of the cemetery. Those were here a few weeks ago, he says, the last time he and Ruben visited. Whoever cleaned the place appears simply to have abandoned the bags, as if they only aimed to package the vegetative trash. But at least the wildness has been contained; at least the graves are visible. I crank my car, and we leave.

We meander through the warehouse district west of Studemont. Chris tells me to turn on an unlikely-looking little street, and it dead-ends, suddenly, at what appears to be a piece of undeveloped East Texas. Sheets of vines drape tall trees like slipcovers. Woody plants grow as high as a person's head. We park near a porta-potty at the forest's edge.

This, Chris says, is Olivewood, generally believed to be Houston's oldest black cemetery. Off in the distance, an obelisk protrudes stubbornly from the foliage; it's an odd sight, like a miniature Washington Monument erupting from the rain forest. Here, at the cemetery's entrance, we can see no other markers.

Later, historian Pat Prather tells me that Olivewood was founded by members of Trinity United Methodist Church, and was the final resting place of educators, land owners, and other movers and shakers in the black community; she calls the cemetery "the garden of the gods." Its exact age isn't known, but some graves appear to date from the 1830s. Its dead include the Reverend Elias Dibble, Texas's first black ordained Methodist minister; he led the African Mission, which -- renamed Trinity Methodist -- was officially deeded the cemetery in 1875.

In fact, Prather says, the Reverend Jack Yates was originally buried at Olivewood. Later, though, his body was moved to College Memorial Park, deemed a more suitable resting place for a Baptist.

That brouhaha seems long ago and far away, from an era when the chasm between black Methodists and black Baptists seemed too distant to bridge, and when neither cemetery seemed endangered. In the early '90s Olivewood morphed into an interdenominational, or even secular, cause. The first large cleanups were spearheaded by Congregation Emanu-El; the synagogue declared the effort an annual "mitzvah" and was joined by an amalgam of churches, Scout groups and the ubiquitous juvenile probationers.

An embryonic Friends of Olivewood group now gestates inside WALIPP, the William A. Lawson Institute for Peace and Prosperity. Lawson, WALIPP's leader and namesake, is the minister of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church. That a Baptist should care for dead Methodists no longer seems surprising. Eventually time and Houston swallow such differences; Baptists care for Methodists, Jews for Christians, Hispanics for blacks. The only unbridgeable gap is the one between the living and the dead.

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