Saving Forgotten and Historic Cemeteries

The Texas Historical Commission is stepping up its efforts to find and preserve

the thousands of historic but forgotten cemeteries that dot the Texas landscape.

The agency recently went over the one thousand mark in that program, as Houston

Public Radio’s Jim Bell reports.

For every cemetery that’s known to the public, there are hundreds if not thousands of old cemeteries that have been abandoned and forgotten over nearly three centuries of Anglo and Hispanic presence in Texas. Gerron Hite directs the Historic Cemetery Preservation program at the Texas Historical Commission.

“We feel that historic cemeteries are an important part of our past. They’re sort of a directory into the past. People that lived in a community contributed to the development of an area, and sometimes it’s our only tangible link we have with the past, with these people in the past.”

People who travel Texas highways and backroads a lot have seen the old well tended cemeteries in and near the small towns, and those next to old churches in out of the way farming communities that were thriving areas before the people moved away to the big city. Hite says those small graveyards are just a small percentage of all the cemeteries that are out there somewhere, but forgotten.

“We use the figure of 50 thousand cemeteries in the state. We’re not sure how many there are, but, and I’m not sure of the percentage, but there’s certainly a lot of them out there. I get phone calls and emails weekly about cemeteries that are not on the map or not on our list.”

Many of the forgotten cemeteries are family plots on farms and ranches that were sold off or abandoned, and no one today knows they’re there. Most of the time they stay forgotten until or unless new owners come in to plow the land for new farming or subdivide it for development, and they find the old cemetery. Hite says that’s where trouble usually starts, because it’s against state law to desecrate a cemetery,

“If you are a landowner that has a cemetery on your property, there’s two things. You must allow visitation to the cemetery, and you can direct the route to take to visit that cemetery. And the second thing, you’re not supposed to desecrate it.”

And plowing a cemetery under or building over it qualifies as “desecration.” Hite says that’s why it’s important to find the old cemeteries and designate them as Historic.

“It alerts present and future landowners that there’s a cemetery there, makes people aware of it. We contact the appraisal district and ask them to add it to their maps. So we’re just trying to establish that there’s a cemetery there.”

The Historical Commission recently designated its one-thousandth Historic Texas Cemetery in Fort Worth, and Hite says they’re constantly on the lookout for more. There’s more information on the historic cemetery program, and how to apply to get a cemetery designated, on our website Jim Bell, Houston Public Radio News.

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