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.
You can send feedback and questions on the Oakwood Cemetery chapel project to:
• Kevin Johnson, project contact, firstname.lastname@example.org, 512-974-9506
• Tonja Walls-Davis, cemeteries contact, email@example.com, 512-978-2320