Decisions Await for the Fate of Oakwood Chapel

Is moving graves from under the chapel adding insult to injury?

The entrance to Oakwood Cemetery (Photo by Montinique Monroe)
Austin’s segregated past pervades within the city’s Oakwood Cemetery. Built in 1839, the cemetery spans 40 acres between East 14th Street and MLK Jr. Boulevard, and was initially cut into three sections: one for non-natives who died here, another for white people, and a third for people of color, known as the colored grounds.

Oakwood’s historic chapel was constructed on the colored grounds in 1914. Last fall, plans for a renovation of the chapel hit a hitch when archaeologists discovered burial remains below the building. Today, at least 25 unidentified graves exist under the chapel.

The city’s Parks and Recreation Department, which manages the city’s cemeteries, notified City Council Member Ora Houston about the findings. Houston, who represents the area, raised awareness about the discovery throughout East Austin. A community conversation on the findings was held March 25. Fifty-two residents discussed the possibilities for burials and construction. Comments from the meeting, along with written feedback from PARD’s collaboration with the Texas Historical Commission, was used to develop a draft report on steps to follow. Projects coordinator Kevin Johnson said “the community and professional input that we considered for the draft report” included eight direct emails or letters and 65 documented comments.

Fifteen community members joined PARD, Houston and the archeologists at Chestnut Community Center on Tuesday to discuss the report. They proposed two recommendations that align with PARD’s budget and timeline: exhume and reinter the discovered burials (not all of the burials will be able to be removed) in close proximity, or keep the remains underneath the chapel, separated by a suspended wood floor with crawl space. A process to commemorate the site will be developed upon reaching the final decision. Austin native Steven Brown didn’t attend the first meeting but came to Tuesday’s meeting to share his view. He told the Chronicle he doesn’t “want the cheapest option to be at the expense of again the black community.” He wants the chapel moved.

“They were already put over there, segregated to that section,” Brown said. “The chapel was built there and it was an injustice to build on top of a grave site. And so to excavate the bodies and create another offense to those bodies, I just don’t agree with [that].”

However, wording in the draft report suggests that moving or raising the chapel “is infeasible because the process would cause significant damage to the condition of the graves underneath the building.” Residents asked who built the chapel and if an apology will be issued to the families of those buried underneath. With no definite answer, PARD staff took note of the questions to be included in the final report.

Written letters and emails in response to the draft will be taken through April 21. PARD plans to issue a final decision the following week.

Council Member Ora Houston sits and listens to Tuesday's meeting (Photo by Montinique Monroe)

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More by Montinique Monroe
Decision Reached on Fate of Oakwood Cemetery's Unidentified Graves
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Oakwood Cemetary, Ora Houston, Oakwood Cemetery

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