Archaeologists working alongside contractors reconstructing the historic chapel at Austin’s Oakwood Cemetery made a grim discovery in late November: human remains buried under the building.
City officials said in a news conference Tuesday that they believe there might be about 25 graves underneath the chapel, which was built in 1914 on what was then the nonwhite portion of the segregated cemetery.
“My heart stopped when I heard that, in 1914, a chapel was built on top of graves,” said Council Member Ora Houston, who represents the East Austin area around the cemetery. “Because I’m sure, at that point, people knew there were graves in that part of the cemetery. The lack of humanity hit me.”
The discovery halted restoration of the chapel, which involved using 2012 bond funding to stabilize the structure and rehabilitate restrooms, doors and lighting. Workers have now completely removed the chapel’s flooring, showing the discoloration in the ground of many grave sites. Archaeologists have identified bones, but haven’t removed any from the site.
City officials are now making the discovery public and moving forward with a community meeting at 10 a.m. March 25 at Delores Duffie Recreation Center, 1182 N. Pleasant Valley Road, to determine what to do next. A likely option is to exhume the remains, which could take several months.
City officials emphasized that they are working closely with the Texas Historical Commission to determine best practices to proceed. It’s unclear how long the work will put off the chapel’s reconstruction, but officials said removing the chapel isn’t an option.
Oakwood, Austin’s oldest cemetery, was founded in 1839. Historians believe the section around the chapel was full by 1890, so the graves likely belong to post-Reconstruction-era African-Americans. If exhumed, it might be possible to tell some characteristics of the people buried, but poor records make it unlikely they will be individually identified, officials said.
“There is little information to tell us who the individuals are who were buried in this section,” Houston said. “What I know in my heart is that they contributed to the formation and foundation of the community through their toil and labor.”
The chapel was built as deaths in hospitals became more common and more memorial services began to occur outside homes, said Dale Flatt, founder of Save Austin’s Cemeteries. It served first for memorials, then as a cemetery office. It’s long been known, he said, that graves were right alongside the building.
The graves in that area of the cemetery mostly belong to African-Americans, but also include some Hispanics and any “pauper” whites who were unidentified when they died, Flatt said. Records have changed hands so many times that it’s unknown exactly where people are buried, even for such prominent people as civic leader Jacob Fontaine, who is somewhere in that section of the cemetery.
Kim McKnight, the parks department coordinator who has worked on historic cemetery planning, cautioned against assuming the graves were always unmarked. They might have had wooden crosses that deteriorated or stones with markings that were worn away.
“Sadly, there are many precedents around the country where grave sites for communities of color have been disregarded,” McKnight said. “We intend to move forward carefully and respectfully and, in doing so, hope to restore dignity to the grave sites discovered.”