“Olivewood is a living cemetery,” says Margott Williams. In the springtime, Williams walks through the grassy, flora-filled graveyard, home to her great-grandparents, grandfather and uncles as well as to hawks, plump rabbits and a coyote.
Stepping into the “Honoring Olivewood” photograph exhibit is like stepping into Olivewood itself, says Kasey French, photographer of the collection. French has walked the acres of Houston’s first incorporated African American cemetery and can attest to its vitality. “There are hundreds of acres of these tombstones and graves that you can’t see. One day you cut all the foliage off, and the next day it’s there and it’s grown to twice the size that it has before.”
The photographer needed to believe in what she could not see to make Olivewood come alive in her series. French captured Submerged Sky (2011) the morning after a heavy rain. In the picture, a headstone peeks over a watery grave where rainwater has collected into a reflective pool. It is an image of cleansing, rebirth and greater omniscience. “There are greater forces looking down upon the people interred in Olivewood.”
French was only 16 when she proposed the photographic project as a fundraising option for Descendants of Olivewood, a nonprofit organization — founded by Williams — dedicated to restoring and maintaining the historic cemetery. French also saw the series as a way to raise awareness about the site. But her work has become more than that. “It’s a genuine show of love for this sacred place,” says Williams.
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The photographer, now 21, remembers her first visit to Olivewood to the day. “I very clearly remember Ms. Margott standing on her tree stump, telling the story about Olivewood to a bunch of sophomore and junior Catholic kids.”
Williams was jovial and quick to laugh, the exact opposite of what you would expect a gravesite guardian to be. And as her classmates prayed for relief from the heat, French soaked it all in. “I was just enthralled beyond belief at how much passion she had.”
French’s own passion grew as she devoted more and more time to the organization. When she started volunteering at Olivewood, she was Williams’s mentee. Today, the two are friends. “This has just been a whirlwind. I wanted [Descendants of Olivewood] to have all the glory, but, now, we’re all getting to share this wonderful spotlight.”
“Honoring Olivewood” continues through May 29 at National Museum of Funeral History, 415 Barren Springs, open Mondays to Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. 281-876-3063, nmfh.org.