After Years of Neglect, Historic Cemetery Looking Better

Hidden along a bend in White Oak Bayou just south of I-10 near downtown is a hidden piece of Houston history. For the past 136 years, Olivewood Cemetery has seen the city grow up around it, and for many of those years, has been neglected. But as Jack Williams reports, things are now starting to turn around at Houston’s most historic African-American burial ground.


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“When I got out of my car in 1999 and I first came here, I was just shocked. You couldn’t see headstones. It was really sad.”

Margott Williams has a vested interest in Olivewood Cemetery. Her great grandfather and great grandmother are buried here. So is her grandfather and several uncles. She’s now the president of Descendents of Olivewood, a group given legal guardianship over the cemetery a few years ago. Things have changed since then….much of the overgrowth is gone and the cemetery is starting to look a lot better.

Angel headstone“Now when I walk up and I’m able to get out of my car and just walk across the cemetery versus walking up and going “wow” and not even knowing there was a cemetery here back then, it makes me really happy to know that we have people who really cherish this sacred ground.”

But there’s still a lot of work to do. Last month, Preservation Texas named Olivewood one of the state’s most endangered historical places.

“This is not a $50,000 project. This is a multi-million dollar project. The headstones need to be reset and restored. Right now we’re having a problem with bodies, bones being exposed.”

“These are Ike trees right here and some are pre-Ike and we’re still in the process of cutting them up. My chainsaw, I just broke it yesterday so now I got to put it in the shop.”

Charles Cook estimates he’s spent about 3500 hours at Olivewood over the past few years, clearing overgrowth, often by himself. It’s a labor of love for him. Many of his relatives are buried here.

“When I first came upon the cemetery back in 1993, it was probably about a 30 or 40 year stint in overgrowth and neglect. When we came back upon it in 2003, we have made at least three-quarters of the way through the cemetery and maintaining it.”

Olivewood CementaryCook gets emotional when he talks about what the cemetery means to him and the history of the African-American community in Houston.

“I was born and raised here in this city, so I’m a proud Texan and to take this task on, it’s special in my life. It’s important that we save our legacy. It’s slipping away. It’s almost gone. So this is significant, this sacred ground here.”

Olivewood Cemetery is just north of Washington Avenue and West of Studement. It’s open to the public and volunteers are always welcome.

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