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Oakwood Cemetery is Austin’s oldest cemetery, as old as the city itself— the first burials took place here in about 1839. It is the final resting place of many notable Texans including five governors and an Alamo survivor, but also contains many unmarked graves. In 1859, the city divided the grounds into three sections: one ”for use of the inhabitants of the city of Austin,” one for “strangers,” and one for “people of color.”
About 1,200 people of color were buried in the “Colored Grounds” by the 1880s, when it was considered to have reached capacity. These included many of Austin’s most prominent African Americans from the late 19th century. In 2015, as part off a city-wide effort to protect and restore historic cemeteries, the City Council funded a project to rehabilitate the deteriorating 1914 chapel here and make it usable as a public space.
But in fall of 2016, workers digging beneath the chapel’s interior found something that brought the project to a halt: bone fragments. A team of archaeologists found portions of grave markers alongside human bones, confirming the chapel was built on top of African American graves. When archaeologists find human remains, they try to consult descendants of the deceased before excavating them completely. But poor documentation and decayed grave markers would make identifying the individual graves impossible.
Instead, city officials reached out to Austin’s African American community with help from local clergy. Some in the community felt it would be disrespectful to move the bones. Others felt it would be more disrespectful to allow people to walk over the bones when the chapel re-opens to the public. Some cited European traditions of burying honored dead under chapels, but the 1914 structure was probably a segregated space and not built here as a sign of respect.
Officials were able to consult with one known descendant of one of the better-documented African Americans buried in Oakland Cemetery, Rev. Jacob Fontaine. Fontaine founded six African American churches in central Texas, including the First Baptist Church on the site that would later become Austin’s first public library and the Austin History Center. In addition to being a minister, Fontaine ran businesses including a laundry, a grocery, and a book store. During Reconstruction, he founded "The Gold Dollar," one of the first black newspapers in the South. He also advocated for the establishment of the University of Texas in Austin. There is a modern memorial to him in the cemetery, though his actual grave is unmarked.
According to a city report, Fontaine’s descendent, along with the majority of the community, supported re-interring the remains respectfully elsewhere, hopefully allowing archaeologists to learn something about the people who left them behind in the process. Since then, a local newspaper reports the archaeological team has exhumed 39 "sets of remains", and the rehabilitation work has continued.
Cover image: rorymoonrabit via Instagram.