We’re gearing up for a brand new series of events this year: Heritage Excursions. This series of trips will take you to places that reveal our pasts and present to learn more about Houston and about the world in which we live.
Our first Heritage Excursion this year is a tour of historic Houston cemeteries. The weekend before Halloween, we’ll depart from The Heritage Society on a bus tour to four cemeteries. This tour, built around the theme of symbology of the afterlife, takes you to four lcations: Olivewood, College Memorial Park, Founders, and Beth Israel. Over the next few weeks, we’re highlighting individual cemeteries in our blog so that you can come to know and appreciate the significance of these special places.
Heritage Excursion: Cemetery Tour
When: October 27, 2013 at 2:30 p.m.
Where: Meet at The Heritage Society
This event is cosponsored by the Buffalo Soldiers Museum, The Heritage Society, and Houston Greeters.
Today’s blog highlights Olivewood, Houston’s oldest, largest African-American cemetery.
Olivewood Cemetery, the first cemetery for Houston’s freedmen after the Civil War, was built on land that was a burial ground for slaves so its roots go back more than 150 years. In 1875, the land, which had previously been used for slave burials, was purchased by Richard Brock, Houston’s first black alderman. It opened as a cemetery for black Methodists in 1877. When Olivewood was platted, it was the first African-Americans burial ground within the Houston city limits.
Many 19th century influential African-Americans were buried in the cemetery, including Reverend Elias Dibble, first minister of Trinity United Methodist Church; Reverend Wade H. Logan, also a minister of the church; and James Kyle, a blacksmith. Besides Methodists, there were also Catholics and perhaps some who believed in voodoo. There are physicians, dentists, soldiers, mothers and babies, the rich and the poor. Members of the famed Buffalo Soldiers units are also buried at the site.
Many of the headstones have references that provide links to belief practices from West Africa: names spelled backward, graves marked with seashells, broken dishes and jars to deter spirits from returning to the graves, and pipes planted upright in the ground to help the soul reach heaven.
The cemetery includes more than 700 family plots around a graceful, elliptical drive that originated at an ornate entry gate. It contains graves of both the well-to-do and those who died in poverty; therefore, the grave markers run the gamut from elaborate Victorian monuments to simple, handmade headstones. Burials at Olivewood Cemetery continued through the 1960s.
In 2003, after decades of neglect and abandonment, the “Descendants of Olivewood,” a nonprofit organization, was established to take guardianship of the cemetery, “to provide care and to protect its historical significance.” Olivewood was designated a Historic Texas Cemetery. By 2010 water and vandals threatened to damage graves in the back of the cemetery near the Bayou. The cemetery has been rescued by a group of descendents determined to help preserve the stories of Houston’s past.
By 2013, a digital database for the cemetery has been created (many memorials created through using the death certificates found at http://www.familysearch.org) consisting mostly of the years 1910-1940 and can be found at http://www.findagrave.com. This database has about 3,800 memorials and can be searched by using first and or last names.
Over the years, there have been numerous reports of mysterious after-dark sightings and strange movements within the graveyard. Cathi Bunn, a paranormal investigator, began exploring Olivewood in 1999. One moonlit midnight, Bunn said she videotaped the ghost of Mary White, who was buried in 1888, hovering above her headstone
To learn more about the stories of Olivewood and to understand the meaning behind the references to belief practices from West Africa, join us for the tour to hear Olivewood descendents describe a unique Houston history and heritage.
General Admission – $20
Students – $15
Members of AIA, The Buffalo Soldiers Museum, The Heritage Society and Houston Greeters – $15
Call 713.364.6344 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to purchase tickets.