HISTORICAL – The Persistence of Olivewood Cemetery
by Dr. Joseph Stromberg
Historically African American cemeteries dating back to after the Civil War are some of the most endangered sites in Houston. Olivewood cemetery, the first incorporated African American cemetery in the city, has survived because of community activism.
Founded in 1875 and located near White Oak Bayou in Houston’s First Ward, this graveyard became the final resting place for many African American Houstonians.1Among the prominent figures from the 19th century and beyond were ministers, aldermen, physicians and other key figures — including the dentist, Dr. Charles B. Johnson, who composed Houston’s Bicentennial song. Prior to its founding, the site was used by enslaved Texans with continued internment by their descendants thereafter.2 An examination of the cemetery’s burial records show birth dates as early as 1785 and death dates from 1855.3
After its closure in 1966 the grounds suffered from neglect, and Olivewood almost succumbed to overgrowth and vandalism. Many attempted to revitalize the site, but without new income from funerary services, volunteers had to rely on thin donations and their own free time. Even a designation as a historic cemetery in 2005 and a call for preservation in 2011 did not lead immediately to revitalization.4
Renewal of the cemetery has been most successful under the stewardship of the nonprofit group Descendants of Olivewood. After winning control of the site in 2008, the group has actively worked to restore and preserve the space.5 Their good work is a testimony to the power of grassroots organizing and activism. The cemetery’s history also reminds us that discussions of slavery and inequality in Houston have not always been acknowledged. Houston and the surrounding areas still contain tax-dollar funded memorials to Confederates, while Olivewood, with its ties to emancipated African Americans has survived only through donations.
- Lisa Mouton, “Forgotten, But Not Gone: The Symbols of Historic Olivewood Cemetery,” Journal of History and Culture 1, no. 5 (Winter 2014): 63–65.
- Ibid., 70–74.
- “Descendants of Olivewood: Cemetery Records,” accessed August 30, 2016, www.descendantsofolivewood.org/cemetery-records/.
- Mouton, “Forgotten, But Not Gone: The Symbols of Historic Olivewood Cemetery,” 67.
- Ibid., 74–76.
Author Dr. Joseph Stromberg is a professor of history at San Jacinto College Central. His academic interests are regional, energy and environmental history. Contact him at email@example.com.