Heights community members worry that new development site may have unmarked children’s graves underneath

Olivewood is Houston’s oldest incorporated African American cemetery, having been established in 1875, just 10 years after emancipation.


Rebecca Noel/Houston Public Media
Olivewood Cemetery could be the site of a new development, much to the disproval of some community members.

A development company is seeking approval from the city for a parking variance on a site it owns in the Heights area, adjacent to the historic Olivewood Cemetery. Community members say the site likely contains tens of children's unmarked graves.

The 7.5-acre cemetery sits nestled in the bend of the White Oak Bayou, in the shadow of a growing number of apartment complexes and other new developments. Olivewood is Houston's oldest incorporated African American cemetery, having been established in 1875, just 10 years after emancipation. It was operational from then until the 1960's, and it is now the final resting place of an estimated 4,000 Black Houstonians – though only a fraction of the graves are marked.

An estimated 800 of the people buried there are former slaves.

At the time of its founding, it sat at the western-most end of the city.

"This was as far as Houston went to the west in 1875," said Charles Cook, a cofounder of Descendants of Olivewood. "They wanted all the cemeteries on the outskirts of the city, so as you go down West Dallas, Allen Parkway, Washington, you'll see all your old cemeteries are on this side of town."

MORE: Rebecca Noel discusses this story on Houston Matters


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Cook said development on and near the sites of old African American cemeteries is not unheard of in Houston.

"The latest news was Evergreen [Cemetery] on Lockwood and I-10," said Cook. "When they took Lockwood and ran it through the cemetery, they were supposed to move the remains there. However, when Metro later came through to do a project there, they started to dig and found remains on the very first day that had not been removed."

He also cited College Memorial Park Cemetery on West Dallas Street, where the Allen House Apartments were built just to the east of the cemetery, on top of where Cook said some have reported children may have been buried.

"In Houston, they have built on top of a lot of African American cemeteries," said Cook.

The land next to Olivewood is owned by development company Maximo Capital. There, the company intends to construct a center for its client, Sphere, a soccer-inspired fitness concept founded by former Houston Dynamo player, Michael Chabala.

"We have an idea, but for that project to really be feasible, we first need the parking variance. Once we get past that, then we can start to figure out what's under there," said John Cadenhead, an architect working for Maximo. "There will be an archeologist involved, and we will do everything we can to discover what's underground and develop responsibly."

Community members involved with Olivewood are confident there are children's remains beneath Maximo's property based on images from the 1940's as well as testimony from long-time neighborhood residents. However, a concrete slab sits just beneath the grass, left over from a former Grocer's Supply that was built atop the property, and the concrete would need to be demolished in order to definitively reveal what is beneath.

In addition to the construction itself, community advocates worry the new construction may worsen flooding challenges already posing a threat to Olivewood's preservation.

Last year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation ranked Olivewood Cemetery as the 11th most endangered historic site in the country. Margott Williams, president of Descendants of Olivewood, said environmental factors are largely to blame.

"Every time we experience that 500-year flood that happens every five or 10 years, it takes a toll on Olivewood. The back half of the cemetery is experiencing massive erosion, with the loss of graves and remains," said Williams. "As more concrete is poured and things are built, there's less soil to absorb the water. When there's a big-time flood and the sewer system gets overworked, the water from the street flows right here and gets backed up in Olivewood, causing more erosion."

Williams said, in her ideal scenario, Maximo would donate the land to the cemetery for a tax write-off. However, if development does move forward, Williams said she hopes for transparency in the process and respect for the remains she said are likely to be found.

"Whenever the archeological investigation starts, I hope we will be able to be here and be notified when that is going on so we can be a part of it," said Williams.

Williams said Descendants of Olivewood had similar conversations with the first owner of the property, but their concerns were ignored.

Caitlin Conner, a frequent volunteer at Olivewood, said the organization would consider attempting to raise the funds to buy the land from Maximo. According to the Harris County Appraisal District, the property is currently valued at around $600,000.

The Houston Planning Commission will issue a recommendation Thursday at noon on whether to approve Maximo Capital's parking variance application.

Rebecca Noel

Rebecca Noel


Rebecca Noel is a daily reporter at Houston Public Media. She covers a wide range of topics, including state and local government, public health and the Texas electrical grid. Rebecca has also covered Houston-area school districts, including Houston ISD and Katy ISD, some of the largest in the state.Rebecca is...

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