Public learns details on remains found under historic cemetery chapel


Highlights

Construction is on hold after human remains were found under the Oakwood Cemetery chapel.

So far, 20 shaft stains have been discovered and 13 grave sites have been observed, though they are obscured.

Identifying remains, contacting their relatives and reaching out to the community for details about the dead were deemed priorities by about 50 people who attended the first public update on the burials recently discovered under the Oakwood Cemetery chapel.

A chapel restoration project, which involved using 2012 bond funding to stabilize the structure and rehabilitate restrooms, doors and lighting, came to a standstill in late November after archaeologists working alongside contractors discovered human remains under the building. The chapel was built in 1914 on what was then the nonwhite portion of the segregated cemetery.

Construction was put on hold as officials worked to determine next steps.

Austin parks officials, who hosted Saturday’s meeting, said workers have removed the chapel’s flooring and excavated about 3.5 to 4 feet to expose discoloration in the ground that indicates grave sites and allow archaeologists to inventory what was visible.

So far, 20 shaft stains have been discovered, 13 grave sites have been observed — though they are obscured — and eight burial sites and three headstones are known on the chapel grounds, said Kevin Johnson, project coordinator at the Austin Parks and Recreation Department.

Archaeologists found some artifacts, including a solarized amethyst glass stopper, a stoneware fragment with a maker’s mark, an iron horseshoe and assorted keys.

Nothing has been decided yet, but one option is to exhume the remains, analyze them to learn basic details about the deceased and inter them again elsewhere, said Kim McKnight, the parks department coordinator who has worked on historic cemetery planning.

Documentation about the burials from the time period is also limited, she said, so identification of the remains would be very difficult.

Moving or demolishing the chapel isn’t an option, she said, because the Oakwood Cemetery is a state and city historic landmark. The building also lacks the structural integrity to be picked up and moved.

Colony Park resident Barbara Scott, who has a friend buried at Oakwood, came to Saturday’s meeting to learn more. Scott said she often visits her friend’s grave on holidays and other occasions to place flowers.

“I think that especially the prominent African-Americans that are there need to be recognized, you know, with plaques or tours,” Scott said. “I’m just hoping to see that that section of the cemetery is recognized”

Angela Herron, whose grandparents are buried at Oakwood, said the chapel’s construction, likely knowingly over African-American graves, was an injustice.

“I do hope that they do a monument that acknowledges the people there, and I also hope they do something that acknowledges that this is the colored section because I think for years people did not even know,” Herron said.

City staffers will take into account community feedback from Saturday’s meeting and emailed feedback, and will come up with a draft recommendation by April 7, Johnson said.

After that, the city will also seek public input with three meetings in late spring regarding a public memorial ceremony and how to incorporate the burial discoveries into the building design.

Whatever Austin decides will set an important precedent, said Bamidele Agbasegbe Demerson, site manager and curator of the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center, who is advising the city on this issue and future programming at the chapel.

“This has occurred all across the country, and I think what might be done here in Austin will serve as a model for elsewhere on how we deal with this event in a humane way,” Demerson said.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Local

Community news: Benefit on Tuesday for Little Helping Hands

TRAVIS COUNTY SOUTH AUSTIN Benefit for Little Helping Hands The free Pints & Poses event to benefit Little Helping Hands will be from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Hyatt Regency Austin, 208 Barton Springs Road. The nonprofit’s mission is to engage children in volunteerism and empower them to make a difference in their communities. A vinyasa...
UT removing Confederate statues from South Mall
UT removing Confederate statues from South Mall

University of Texas President Gregory L. Fenves abruptly announced late Sunday that four statues of people with Confederate ties would be removed immediately from the school’s South Mall. The bronze likenesses of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston and Confederate Postmaster John H. Reagan will be relocated to the university&rsquo...
RIGHT NOW: Two men hospitalized with gunshot wounds Sunday night
RIGHT NOW: Two men hospitalized with gunshot wounds Sunday night

Two men have been hospitalized for gunshot wounds on Sunday night, according to Austin-Travis County EMS. Police are on scene at Rogge Lane and Manor Road in northeast Austin and have asked people to avoid the area, EMS said. Officials did not have any other information to provide about the incident. Both men were taken to Dell Seton Medical Center...
1979 solar eclipse news report ended with wish for peace in 2017
1979 solar eclipse news report ended with wish for peace in 2017

“May the shadow of the moon fall on a world at peace.” Those were the words of ABC News anchorman Frank Reynolds, who covered the last total eclipse that passed over the continental United States on Feb. 21, 1979. Reynolds ended his broadcast with a hopeful message of world peace in 2017 when the next total eclipse passed over the country...
Eclipse also has relevance for astrologers
Eclipse also has relevance for astrologers

Monday’s total eclipse is a significant event for astronomers, but it also has relevance for astrologers.  On her website, astrologer Marjorie Orr said that several major history-altering events -- including the explosion of the first atomic bomb and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy -- have occurred within a few months...
More Stories