Preservation Group Restores and Protects Historic Cemeteries

Citing a blend of history, science and technology, a local preservation group is working to protect and restore abandoned African-American cemeteries. Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson has more.

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Project R.E.S.P.E.C.T. is a grassroots effort to identify and preserve the history contained in old African-American cemeteries. The Evergreen Negro Cemetery in the historic Fifth Ward is one of the hubs of the preservation effort. Project R.E.S.P.E.C.T's founder, W.W. Jones, or Woody as he's known to friends, says at one time there were about 30 negro cemeteries in Houston, but many of them have disappeared.

"For example, the current fire department training unit for the City of Houston that's behind the old Jeff Davis Hospital is sitting on top of what was one of the very first African-American indigent cemeteries."

Encroachment has covered up all but a handful of these sites. The Evergreen Negro Cemetery is just down the road from the Olivewood Cemetery, another burial ground for the African-American community. Jones says these two sites are in the same category as many of the old, black cemeteries -- they're considered abandoned and neglected properties.

"These properties are just sort of in a dangling category where they're not owned by anybody and because there is no revenue generated -- they don't generate taxes -- the state didn't want them, the city didn't want them and the county didn't want them. So how do you come in here and do something about a piece of property that's not owned by anybody?"

That presents a problem for non-profit organizations like Project R.E.S.P.E.C.T. The Texas Historical Commission requires documentation of ownership before they will grant an historic designation. Jones says he could petition the courts to assume ownership of the land, but then he'd be saddled with the tax burden for each site. Pamela Moncrief, who works with Jones on Project R.E.S.P.E.C.T., says there are about 3,000 such burial sites in Texas alone.

"In these places is such a history and such an opportunity for learning -- it's like mowing over a museum, you know, and mowing over a mosaic of information. You know there are untold stories here."

Hundreds of those properties are in this region. In fact, Jones says the Brazos River Valley is rich with them, because that's where so many plantations were located. Many of them are slave cemeteries, or small family plots. But he says they all contain a valuable and fleeting picture of African-American history in Texas. Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.

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