Grave Importance

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

"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.

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.)

With donated materials, Ruben and two friends, Savino Marin and Albert Baldez, erected the chain-link fence. Ruben painted signs. He even erected a skinny flagpole; from it, he flew an American flag.

Ruben and Chris proudly show off the cemetery: the impressive monument for John Linton, a 26-year-old cowboy killed by lightning; the flat, brick-size stones used for babies; and the grave of Eliza Williams, who died in 1913, six days after her 15th birthday.

Linton's stone is carved with a poem; others show the emblem of the Masonic lodge. But many show simply a name and dates of birth and death. Some, made of sandstone, have crumbled so much that they refuse to yield even those scraps of information. Other markers are completely missing -- stolen, or made of wood that rotted, or perhaps still sunk into the gumbo soil. Oddly, lilies planted by mourners have outlasted many of the headstones.

Here and there, silk flowers adorn some headstones. The flowers, Ruben says, are left by a Hispanic woman. She lives too far away to visit her own relatives' graves. Sometimes she stops here instead and hopes that back home someone is likewise honoring her dead.

Every now and then Ruben's voice turns bitter. He says that after he cleared the lot, his landlord raised his rent by $200 a month -- in part because the beautified cemetery had increased the neighborhood's property values, and in part because the landlord assumed that Ruben was somehow making money off his work. But Ruben isn't paid by anyone. Not by the state, or the county, or the city --none claims responsibility for the maintenance of abandoned cemeteries. And not even by the Harrisburg-Jackson Cemetery Association, a volunteer group that appears more interested in the cemetery's history than its upkeep. Ruben lights a Marlboro and waves dramatically toward the graves. All this unpaid work, he says, makes him feel like a slave.

But a few minutes later Ruben, Chris and I are driving to other abandoned cemeteries. Ruben declares that he'd be willing to help tend another cemetery if a group would repair the burned-out engine on one of his mowers; he'd need a working mower stored on the site. And he couldn't do all the work himself, he hastens to add. But for a minute he looks cheerful at the prospect of reclaiming another graveyard.

It is possible to revive an abandoned cemetery, and even to secure its long-term prospects. Not far from Harrisburg-Jackson is a case in point: Evergreen Cemetery, off Harrisburg Boulevard, covers 15 acres with 16,000 graves, including those of Confederate soldiers. Trevia Wooster Beverly, generally described as Harris County's "cemetery lady," had a special interest in Evergreen: Some of her relatives were buried there. But like Harrisburg-Jackson, Evergreen had fallen into ruins, covered by weeds and at the mercy of vandals. In '86 Beverly helped found Evergreen Friends, an energetic, hyperorganized group composed largely of senior citizens. The Friends gathered for twice-monthly Saturday cleanups; they published a newsletter and raised money through yard sales, grants and appeals to people whose ancestors were buried at Evergreen.

After six years the Friends cleared away the last of the brush, and for a while they continued their every-other-week schedule of mowing and maintenance. But, as Beverly explains, "We're not young chickens." Eventually the Friends took advantage of a state law, sponsored by Representative Garnet Coleman, that allowed nonprofit groups to claim abandoned cemeteries and allow new burials in available plots. The Friends struck a deal with Santana Funeral Homes: Santana now buries people at Evergreen and, in return, cares for the entire cemetery.

But this afternoon Chris, Ruben and I are not touring success stories. Chris gives me directions to Evergreen Negro Cemetery in the Fifth Ward. It's a very different place from the white Evergreen.

About 20 Buffalo Soldiers lie buried at Evergreen Negro, and it's the final resting place of A.K. Kelley, an emancipated slave-turned-businessman who helped found the cemetery in the late 1890s.  

By the 1950s Evergreen Negro had been abandoned, and in 1960 the city removed 490 graves to turn a path through the cemetery into a full-fledged street. Now Lockwood Drive plows right through the cemetery's center. On the west side of Lockwood, a local history group, the Texas Trailblazers, has mowed the grass and trimmed branches off a fallen tree; Pat Prather, the Trailblazers' leader, blesses the help she has received from juvenile probationers sentenced to community service. But on the east side, the cemetery appears entirely abandoned. High weeds hide the graves, and another fallen tree lies undisturbed, dead leaves still clinging to its branches. The east side makes me sad, but Ruben seems undaunted. Harrisburg-Jackson, he says, once looked a lot worse.

Chris directs me down West Dallas, near swanky new loft developments on Shepherd. "Turn there," he says, as I nearly cruise past an open gate. College Memorial Park Cemetery started sometime in the early 1900s; its 4,400 inhabitants are mostly black, plus a smattering of Hispanics, and they include the former slave Jack Yates, who became the first pastor of Antioch Baptist Church. The dates on graves near the entrance surprise me: People were buried here as late as the 1970s.

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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