Cemetery renovations reveal secrets

Cemetery renovation reveals secrets

A shocking discovery was made at Austin's first municipal cemetery, which was built when Texas was just a fledgling republic.

What was supposed to be a simple renovation at Oakwood Cemetery revealed so much more.

About once a week, President of Save Austin's Cemeteries Dale Flatt and his grandson J.J. come visit Oakwood cemetery.

One side is packed with headstones from yesteryear, but it's a different story on the other side.

Flatt explained, "If you came into town and got sick and died, or you just didn't have any money, you ended up in the Pauper's Field."

Also known as Stranger's Field, the zone was the final resting spot for people of Mexican, German and other descents, but was also the traditional burial section for African-Americans. In 1914, a chapel was built next to the field.

Turns out it, too, was hiding some secrets, unearthed by an archaeologist working with the City of Austin to renovate the building.

"After several weeks of some pretty painstaking soil removal and careful monitoring," said city Historic Preservation Planner Kim McKnight. "We were able to assess that indeed it appeared the chapel was built on graves."

Construction immediately stopped.

She says cities like New York, Dallas and Waco have all dealt with similar issues, sometimes poorly, and moving forward she wants Austin to do it right.

"This is a very big deal what we have found. We think telling this story and marking this injustice in a very sensitive way we can really work with the community to reclaim this site."

That means asking the public's opinion, and putting together a working group to form recommendations about what to do next.

That process will begin later this month.

Flatt hopes to find more clues in the fragments, bones are his self-professed hobby after all. But what he really wants is for the cemetery, and those likely buried in Pauper's field and beneath the chapel, to get the recognition they deserve.

"When you can come by and place your hand on the gravestone of someone who survived at the Alamo or somebody who fought for Texas independence, you can put your hand on that gravestone. It helps you understand Texas history just that much more."

© 2017 KVUE-TV


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