Six Square group working to preserve Austin’s black cultural district

Robert B. and Mary F. Smith rest together in Bethany Cemetery, both born when Texas supported slavery. The couple shares the hallowed ground with farmers, laborers, ministers and veterans from as far back as the Civil War — African-Americans whose contributions to East Austin have since been nearly forgotten.

Bethany’s uneven landscape, dotted with sinking, broken and toppled-over monuments — some likely cast and inscribed by loved ones’ hands — speaks to years of neglect. But the African-American cemetery also serves as a poignant reminder of the country’s era of segregation and a testament to the determined, independent community that built and once tended to this resting place.

A tombstone belonging to Caroline Meyer — who was born 1833 and died in 1920 — rests on its back, severed in two through her first name. A two-year-old’s tomb is missing its cover and earth has spilled into the gaping hole. A weedy mound of rocky dirt covers a more recent grave bearing a simple metal marker with a funeral home’s card attached. On it is typed the name of a man who died in 2011.

On a gray and wet November morning, organizers with the nonprofit group Six Square ushered a group of about two dozen preservationists, anthropologists and community members to Bethany Cemetery as part of a tour highlighting historic African-American contributions to the city. They plan to start an annual “homecoming” event — a tradition among African-Americans in which the dead are celebrated at cemeteries — at Bethany.

The Six Square group shares its name with a six-square-mile district in east-central Austin that is the state’s only black cultural district recognized by the Texas Commission on the Arts.

The district, located just west of Bethany Cemetery, grew out of the disappointing results for Austin’s African-American residents on the city’s 2005 quality of life initiative scorecard. The community suggested forming an African-American cultural arts district that would preserve landmarks — such as churches, businesses and cultural spots — and reflect the legacy of Austin’s 1928 Master Plan that, through depriving residents of utilities, forced African-Americans to move east of what is now Interstate 35.

Cultural districts have cropped up across the country to not only to celebrate a place’s heritage but also to spur neighborhood revitalization efforts. As light rain steadily pattered on during the November walking tour, Six Square’s entourage heard stories of the community’s past struggles and triumphs and discussed a new threat: encroaching real estate development.

“Texas has thousands of cemeteries like Bethany,” said local archaeologist Fred McGhee, who has a doctorate in anthropology. “Conservative estimates are that there are about 50,000 such cemeteries around the state — over 200 in Travis County alone.”

Older graves that are unknown or poorly marked are particularly vulnerable; they could get uprooted by developers who didn’t know the burial sites were there. McGhee and others have wondered whether that could happen with the pending development of the tract next to St. James Missionary Baptist Church on East Martin Luther King Boulevard, which the City Council rezoned last September to allow up to 72 condominiums or townhouses. City officials said an archaeological survey would need to be done before construction begins to ensure the site, which is adjacent to Evergreen Cemetery, does not contain any graves of its own.

In East Austin, some African-American community leaders are sounding an alarm to reclaim nearby cultural sites, including cemeteries, before they disappear. They say that apathy and a lack of awareness of these historic places has been a problem for too long.

“When we forget about these spaces in our communities, the likelihood they will thrive is lessened,” said Shuronda Robinson, the former interim executive director of Six Square. By reinstating a “spirit of going home,” Six Square hopes to spark an interest among community members to learn about Austin’s black culture and to protect its history.

Taking care of Bethany

Sue Spears remembers a time during the 1970s when Bethany Cemetery was the site of annual homecomings, where church members would come out to sing and the community would share barbecue and pitch in to clean up the memorials and mow the grass. All of it was accomplished through the Bethany Cemetery Association, led by area women.

“But all those little ladies died off,” said Spears.

Over the decades, the six-acre graveyard on Springdale Road in East Austin sprouted weeds the height of children and served as a cut-through for Sims Elementary across the street, where Spears once served as PTA president.

Determined to protect Bethany, Spears pushed for its 1997 historic designation. A marker now stands at its entry.

Two children’s graves were already on the land that would become Bethany when resident C. W. Jones bought it in 1892 for $432. Since then, the private cemetery grounds drifted in and out of abandonment. Today, Bethany is tended from time to time by workers in the Travis County nonviolent offenders program. But trash, discarded clothing, melted candles and animal bones still litter the recess at the very back.

Lost to time

Over the years, some families chose to move their loved ones’ remains at Bethany one mile west to the municipal, perpetually maintained Evergreen Cemetery, which was developed in 1926 “to be used exclusively for colored persons.” Evergreen later expanded to encompass the older and largely black and Hispanic Highland Park Cemetery on its eastern end, where Eleanor Faye Thompson, 73, believes her great-grandmother, Mrs. Charlie Clayton, still rests.

Thompson, who grew up in East Austin’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood, cherishes her ancestor’s legacy and wants to learn more about her — including her first name. “It’s important because she’s a wonderful part of who I am,” she said. “Her child was a grandmother that I love.”

About 20 years ago, erosion took its toll on the sloped paupers’ section at Highland Park. In a macabre scene, caskets were ultimately displaced, sending remains down the creek that runs under Austin’s East 12th Street and toward nearby Givens Park, according to Dale Flatt of Save Austin’s Cemeteries. Only a handful of gravestones remain in the former Highland Park section of Evergreen.

It is difficult to determine how many gravesites at Highland Park and Bethany have lost their monuments due to the elements, vandalism or inadvertent damage by landscape crews, Flatt said. Compounding the problem is the fact that many historic African-American cemeteries lack documentation, making it difficult to identify remains.

Telling the story

It is important to celebrate the heritage of African-American burial sites, said Michael Blakey, an anthropology professor at the College of William & Mary who led a project in 1991 after the country’s largest and earliest African burial ground was discovered in Lower Manhattan during a construction job.

“African-Americans came from a long tradition of memorializing their dead,” said Blakey, who spoke at the Six Square event. “Cemeteries represent humanity, and those who built cemeteries are attesting to their humanness.”

Graves of those who endured slavery are especially significant because funerals were historically often denied to African-Americans. In the late 17th century, when the Virginia Assembly prohibited slaves from gathering “under the pretense of feasts and burials,” Blakey said, slave masters controlled “whether one’s life might end honorably.”

Slavery and Jim Crow created the notion that African-Americans were not really human — and that sentiment endures today, Blakey said, in the inability of some white Americans to empathize with the struggles of those who were enslaved.

As a bulwark against the racially and socially divisive atmosphere that has gripped the United States and the world, Six Square’s Robinson said African-Americans must unrelentingly protect, preserve and promote their culture.

Specifically, she said the nonprofit is seeking to acquire resources to identify and catalog the deceased at Bethany and other black cemeteries near the district, such as Evergreen and Plummers, so the organization can “do a better job of telling their story.” The group envisions creating an archival project on those individuals. The nonprofit is also working in tandem with Kealing Middle School to create a walking map of the district.

“We want to be the place where people come to understand the contributions of African-Americans (in Austin),” said Robinson. “And to extend that life further — to create new forms of cultural and artistic expression (within the district).”

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