AFRICAN AMERICAN CEMETERIES : NATIONAL CHALLENGES

Sammons family cemetery Charlottesville, VA. / photo: E.L. Fly
Sammons family cemetery Charlottesville, VA. / photo: E.L. Fly

For decades there has been concern about the desecration and loss of African American cemeteries and burial sites. A National Burial Database of Enslaved Americans is being created. It seems that the frequency and disturbing nature of reports has increased. In 2016 the New York Times published an article by Sandra A. Arnold entitled “Why Slave Graves Matter”. A 2016 National Olmsted Scholar, Azzurra Cox, devoted her research year to the thirty two acre Greenwood Cemetery in the St. Louis, Missouri area. San Antonio’s ABC affiliate KSAT 12 News aired a story on lost and devastated cemeteries in mid-February of this year. A few days later the Washington Post published an article regarding a black cemetery about to be covered by a parking lot. A few days ago National Public Radio (NPR) aired a story about the reluctance to acknowledge slave graves discovered on a construction site at the University of Georgia.

African American Cemetery, Medina County, TX / photo: E.L. Fly
African American Cemetery, Medina County, TX / photo: E.L. Fly

These cases raise so many questions, emotions, concerns, lessons and opportunities that affect a wide cross section of America, not simply African Americans. Too often these resources are acknowledged and interpreted strictly in terms of individual disciplines of archaeology, anthropology, or genealogy.  As cultural landscapes they demand interdisciplinary attention that includes community planners, landscape architects, historic preservation specialists, craft masters and artists.

Pre-twentieth century cemeteries were not merely self contained and disconnected places to hold human remains. Along with churches and schools, burial grounds were sacred, and physical keystones, in the formation and sustained evolution of communities. Many 19th century rural black cemeteries were intentionally placed on sites characterized by natural beauty and visual power.  Racial segregation policies forced Black graveyards to be placed on remote property donated by private citizens. This was also a conscious practice for defensive site planning and selection.

 

Griffin Family Cemetery, San Antonio, TX / photo: E.L. Fly
Griffin Family Cemetery, San Antonio, TX / photo: E.L. Fly

African American resources have been repeatedly exposed to extreme trials of double jeopardy. They were created against the odds of active 18th, 19th and 20th century racial discrimination policies, laws and practices.  Twenty first century policy makers, planners, designers and developers too often assume that there is limited harm in moving or obliterating sacred burial grounds because there is no written history or obvious presence of descendants. Most early black settlements and cemeteries were planned and created from cultural and organic concepts and traditions. The intrinsic history and culture of the original burial place cannot be instantly, or artificially, transferred to a new location. Moving remains from their original resting place without leaving a physical representation of their existence and documenting the cultural history shows combinations of indifference, lack of knowledge and denial of civic responsibility.  When the sites are completely eradicated and hidden, opportunities for closure are squandered and all Americans lose authentic physical history and intellectual growth.

SAN ANTONIO & BLACK SETTLEMENT : 5

Winters descendant visits mass grave for first time
Winters descendant visits mass grave for first time

I began researching one historic Black settlement in northern San Antonio eighteen months ago. By cross referencing land records, census records, archived periodicals, and oral history accounts I began to realize that additional settlements had existed. Each had private property dedicated to religious (African Methodist Episcopal and Baptist), educational and funerary uses. I was able to locate two of the cemeteries in fairly short order, but the third escaped me until I conducted an oral interview with a living descendant, Mr. Dan Winters. He described his childhood visits to the cemetery to help clean overgrown vegetation. In addition, Mr.

Bexar County Buffalo Soldier reenactor / photo by E.L. Fly
Bexar County Buffalo Soldier reenactor / photo by E.L. Fly

Winters described the more prominent permanent markers and name inscriptions, including one Buffalo Soldier, Amos Jackson (c.1866 – 1920). Family memory estimated more than one hundred and fifty graves dating from 1876. Mr. Winters provided enough information to allow me to navigate to within two hundred yards of the original site. The disturbing part of his story is that the cemetery had been removed without the consent of the extended Winters-Jackson family after being in place for at least one hundred and ten years. A very tedious, and tortuous, search revealed that seventy one sets of remains from the cemetery had been moved to a nearby Catholic cemetery in 1986, and placed in a mass grave. I also came across several real estate deeds which specifically identified the metes and bounds of the “Negro graveyard”, and separated it from the surrounding private property. Eventually it became clear that the formal disinterment, or reinterment, permits were ever acquired. San Antonio KSAT 12 (ABC) News reporter Jessie Degollado prepared the story, “Lost African American Cemeteries Located in SA” to bring attention to this historic cultural landscape.

SAN ANTONIO & BLACK SETTLEMENT : 4

“Negro settlement” c.1890 / Map courtesy Bexar County Spanish Archives
“Negro settlement” c.1890 / Map courtesy Bexar County Spanish Archives

Often, ethnic identities are noted in historic San Antonio and Bexar County records. At least eight Black enclaves sprang up in all directions beyond the town limits of San Antonio immediately following the end of the Civil War. But, few maps of the city or county specifically label the ethnic identity of Black facilities, neighborhoods, or settlements. Dr. David Carlson, Ph.D, Bexar County Archivist, recently called about a circa 1890 map that he uncovered that clearly labeled a “Negro settlement” in the southwestern part of the county. The road map documents the route southeast from Castroville, Medina County, to Wilson County. A series of deeds, census rolls, aerial photographs, oral history authenticates the existence of a string of south Bexar County Black settlements extending from Castroville to Elmendorf.  In addition to houses, the here were churches, schools and cemeteries.  This cultural landscape represents a rare, valuable, and untold chapter in Texas and American history.

SAN ANTONIO & BLACK SETTLEMENT : 3

Hockley family descendants interviewed by Dr. Karida Brown, Ph.D.
Hockley family descendants interviewed by Dr. Karida Brown, Ph.D.

Each step in reconstructing San Antonio’s historic Black settlements adds to a better understanding of the overall context and authentic depth of the city’s history. Oral history recording sessions were recently completed with descendants of the Hockley, Warren, Clay, Wilburn and Sutton families. The value of the oral accounts is significant because they include not only personal memories, but farm practices, civic activities, civil rights achievements, political legacies, interactions with other groups, and landmarks in San Antonio and Bexar County.

Hope House Ministries hosted Dr. Karida Brown, Ph.D. sociologist and Dr. Lydia C. Charles, Ph.D. cultural historian, to initiate the development of its community museum and archive. Dr. Brown conducted the oral interviews while Dr. Charles began to develop strategies for sustaining the new museum/archive endeavor within the Hope House Ministries mission. The Southern Historical Collection of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill underwrote Dr. Brown’s time and interview transcription work. Texas Public Radio provided professional studio and technical production expertise. Dove Productions provided professional video equipment and technical production expertise. Fly/Hunt provided the research base, historic interpretation and liaison between the resource families.

SAN ANTONIO & BLACK SETTLEMENT : 2

Griffin family descendants at heritage live oak
Griffin family descendants at heritage live oak

The ongoing research of San Antonio’s historic Black settlements has revealed aspects of the city’s history that many could not imagine.  Oral history sessions with Griffin and other family descendants provided directions to the location of the family homestead site within a modern residential subdivision.  One family member recounted that a promise had been made to name a street in the subdivision after the family.  It turned out that two streets include the Griffin name.  Another family member recounted a family ritual that used a live oak tree as a point of reference.  Rivers, streams, trees and other natural features were used as major landmarks in pre-twentieth century way finding and land deed descriptions.  During a recent visit to the site the encounter with the majestic oak revived the memory.  As it turns out, the oak tree was a landmark at the house site of the family patriarch in the late 1800’s.  Without the surviving tree, the location of the house would be very difficult to identify in the present landscape.  The adjacent photo includes some of the Griffin descendants standing under the tree, now considered to be a heritage oak (greater than 24” trunk diameter).

SAN ANTONIO & BLACK SETTLEMENT : 1

Remethia Acevedo Griffin and Irene Griffin / northern Bexar County, Texas c.1920 / courtesy of Griffin family
Remethia Acevedo Griffin and Irene Griffin / northern Bexar County, Texas c.1920 / courtesy of Griffin family

San Antonio and Bexar County, Texas are not generally recognized for their Black settlement legacies. The photograph here is connected to history and culture in ways that may not be immediately obvious. This is a multi-ethnic family, on a 304 acre family owned site, with an authentic history that connects to all directions of the south central Texas region. As a Texan, I realize that there is even a story in the body language between the lady and the horse. For decades there has only been speculation of why the traces of this family’s history sat in the midst of a modern residential subdivision. The San Antonio Conservation Society and City of San Antonio Office of Historic Preservation are partnering with Ellen P. Hunt/AIA and me to begin to expose this rare and unique history. The houses, schools and churches that served this group of Black settlements have been demolished. We would not have been able to discover the heritage of the residents had they not owned land. A different set of policies, tools and techniques will be required to preserve place and sustain human legacies. The first results of this collaborative effort will be presented during Historic Preservation Month.

South Texas & San Antonio: Black History, Culture & Place™_2

Menger Soap Works (1850) sheltered Black church services in San Antonio, Texas
Menger Soap Works (1850) sheltered Black church services in San Antonio, Texas

There are so many layers of history and culture in the south Texas and San Antonio region that it is literally very difficult to take a step without encountering a significant landmark or story. For many years a myth has been generated that there is “…no significant Black history in south Texas and San Antonio.” Documentation ranging from periodicals, church histories, photographs, maps and public records makes it clear that the myth is absolutely not true.

The Menger Soap Works structure was built in 1850, on the west bank of San Pedro Creek, less than one half mile west of the San Antonio River. The structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as an example of pre-Civil War industrial architecture, and currently serves as the leasing office for a modern apartment complex. However, between 1868 and 1873 it was rented to “Colored Methodist” and African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) church congregations for fifteen dollars a month for religious services. The congregations were started by former Black slaves.  In the coming decades, the congregations evolved to serve Black enclaves within one mile of historic Main Plaza, on the west side of the city. Successors of these original Black congregations still survive in west San Antonio, approaching their one hundred and fiftieth anniversaries.

South Texas & San Antonio: Black History, Culture & Place™_1

Simon Turner, San Jose News (CA), Lomar Service photo, 9-06-1928
Simon Turner, San Jose News (CA), Lomar Service photo, 9-06-1928

Black businessmen began to work on San Antonio’s Alamo Plaza soon after the end of the Civil War in 1865.  Mr. Simon Turner (Black; 1855 – 1942) enlisted at the rank of private in the United States Cavalry in 1867.  He was assigned to the Buffalo Soldiers regiment of the U.S. Cavalry stationed in Oklahoma until 1881.  In 1881 he was reassigned with other Buffalo Soldiers to deliver mail from El Paso, Texas.  Mr. Turner was wounded in action in 1882, and was discharged at the rank of sergeant in 1883, before moving to San Antonio.  Initially, he found work as a porter at the Maverick Bank, on the northwest corner of Alamo Plaza,  at the intersection of Alamo and East Houston.  From 1886 through 1892 Mr. Turner served in the 1st Colored Regiment, Infantry as the Captain of Company A, Excelsior Guard militia (San Antonio).

1891 advertisement, Johnson & Chapman’s General Directory of the City of San Antonio
1891 advertisement, Johnson & Chapman’s General Directory of the City of San Antonio

Between 1884 and 1890 Mr. Turner served as a delegate to a series of “Colored Men’s State Conventions” that addressed civil rights and social issues for Black Texans during the Reconstruction period. By 1891 Mr. Turner was able to operate his own fruit store and “ice cream saloon” near the southwest corner of what is now Alamo and East Crockett Street.  By 1900 he moved to San Jose, California.  In 1928 he received a medal of honor forty five years after his honorable discharge.

Texas Independence & African American Legacy – 1

Grave marker of Samuel McCulloch, Jr., Bexar County, Texas
Grave marker of Samuel McCulloch, Jr., Bexar County, Texas

March 2, 1836 is the date recognized as the Texas declaration of independence from Mexico. Many are not aware that Samuel McCulloch, Jr. (1810-1893), a free Black man, was seriously wounded on October 9, 1835 fighting for Texas independence in Goliad, Goliad County,Texas. Many historians acknowledge him as the first casualty of the Texas Revolution for independence from Mexico.

Mr. McCulloch survived his wounds.  As a veteran of the war he was entitled to a land grant for service.  However, the Republic of Texas constitution, adopted in 1836, prohibited “Africans (and) the descendants of Africans or Indians” from citizenship – civil rights.  McCulloch had the courage to petition the Republic of Texas Congress for his right to own property.  The McCulloch petition was signed into law in 1837 by the President of the Republic of Texas, Sam Houston (1793-1863).  McCulloch was not the first, or only, Black person to chip away at the discriminatory laws prior to, or after, Texas statehood (1845).

McCulloch used the land to farm and raise cattle in south Bexar County, near San Antonio.  He donated land for a church, Medina Baptist.  The congregation evolved to be composed of Tejanos, Blacks and Whites.  He also dedicated land for a school since Texas state laws prohibited the use of public funds for Black school land or buildings.  Sam McCulloch, and other Black Texans, were active, not passive participants in the process of claiming and exercising civil rights for all residents of the state.  The grave of Samuel McCulloch, Jr., some of his relatives, and  a number of his neighbors is extant in south Bexar County, Texas.

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