AUSTIN, Texas — The Oakwood Cemetery Chapel staff is seeking descendants of people of color buried in the Oakwood Cemetery to participate in a vision session and help create a digital 3D model of the thousands of unmarked graves in this area. This will help provide public recognition of the men, women and children buried here who are tagged or geolocated to the burial section.
In the middle of a city where change is the only constant is a place where the past and present intersect.
"This was the first burial place in the city of Austin once the city was inhabited," said University of Texas Professor and Architectural Historian Tara Dudley.
At the historic Oakwood Cemetery, what you see on the surface tells only part of its story.
"With the differences in socioeconomic status and race, there are parts of the cemetery that are less documented and less well-taken-care-of," said Dudley.
The cemetery was segregated at one point, but even affluent status couldn't save the markers of some buried in what's called "the historic colored grounds."
"We're walking toward the marker that commemorates Jacob Fontaine," said Dudley. "After emancipation, he went on to found several Baptist churches."
She added, "At some point in history published this newspaper, the Gold Dollar newspaper, which is one of the first African American newspapers that was established west of the Mississippi River."
"But here you have this amazing founding figure of Austin, who was buried in the colored grounds, but we have no idea where," said Dudley.
Looking around the cemetery, you would think it was full, but as we walked through the "colored grounds," it was clear where some pieces of history are missing.
"A lot of the empty space that you see here is not because there aren't individuals interred there," said Dudley. "There likely are and we just don't have markers for those persons. "
Three hundred markers scatter three acres of the "colored grounds," but more than 2,700 people are buried there, according to Oakwood Cemetery staff. Some of those buried include slaves, rich and everyday folk.
"People of marginalized communities whose histories are continually erased or covered up in the historical narrative," said Dudley.
Dudley said some headstones are eroded or broken while other materials, like wood markers, were uprooted. In some cases, people couldn't afford markers at all.
"What are the specifics?" asked Oakwood Cemetery Exhibit Specialist Gregory Farrar. "What are, what were their names?"
Farrar said it took him months of digging through what he calls an unorganized database to try and answer those questions. Some of the buried were marked as unknown, but Farrar was able to find a few dozen family names dating back to the 1860s.
"Having a record of them and acknowledging them, you know, by name, if we have a name, is at least a very good start," said Farrar.
Farrar said his list could match up with some of the 36 remains found under the chapel and reinterred in 2021. Those remains were found during a restoration project.
Now chapel staff and researchers like Dudley are working on a new project to find descendants of African, Mexican, Native and European Americans buried on the "colored grounds."
"We were actually awarded a national endowment for the humanities grant," said Farrar.
That grant will help create a 3D representation of what the grounds could look like if things were properly documented.
"We have conducted a number of oral history interviews with some descendants," said Farrar.
Feedback from descendants will help imagine the digital 3D model of the thousands of unmarked graves in this area, providing public recognition of the men, women and children buried in this area who are tagged or geolocated to the burial section.
Farrar knows how it feels to amplify the voices of ancestors.
"This is my family's lot," said Farrar.
Eight of his family members, all on his mother's side, are buried at Oakwood.
While the Lovinggood family has markers, it wasn't until 2019 that Farrar was able to find details about his great-great grandfather, Rueben Shannon Lovinggood, through this research.
"RS's task was to officially open Samuel Huston College as its first initial president," said Farrar.
Samuel Huston College is now known as Huston-Tillotson University.
"So being able to connect with that branch has just been a very special thing, especially being out here in Austin, being in a place where, you know, they lived and worked in and they did a lot of amazing things," said Farrar.
A feeling Farrar hopes to bring to other descendants soon.
Because of this research, scarcely documented history has already been unveiled.
"Even within the people that we know about from that time period in Austin's history, I had seen nothing written about this man," said Dudley.
Despite inaccuracies in data and thanks to an old advertisement, Dudley found the marble tombstone of Thomas Hill, a Black affluent builder and business owner in Austin during the late 1800s.
"This man was such a big deal, such well of so civically involved in the Black community in Austin," said Dudley. "But not just the Black community, the white community as well, because his entire will was printed in the newspaper to indicate that this man was a man of means."
"It's important to understand the paths so that we can understand the present," said Dudley. "I feel like the ancestors, you know, are speaking and they want their stories told."
Stories told to repopulate history not just within this cemetery but in Austin's history, before the city's growth buries what these people meant to this world.
If you believe you are a descendant of the following names dating back to the 1860s, contact the Oakwood Cemetery and Chapel:
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