May 19, 2023 - News

New monument memorializes Austin's marginalized dead

A newly installed granite monument memorializes 36 people reinterred by Oakwood Cemetery Chapel.

A newly installed granite monument memorializes 36 people reinterred by Oakwood Cemetery Chapel. Photo courtesy Jennifer Chenoweth/City of Austin

Unidentified, long-ago buried Austinites will be recognized with a monument.

Driving the news: Years-long efforts to address the grim discovery of a burial ground underneath a cemetery chapel come to a close this weekend.

What's happening: Friday through Sunday, the city is hosting free guided tours of the Historic Colored Grounds and the Oakwood Cemetery Chapel at 1601 Navasota St.

  • The events will include a dedication of a monument — featuring gravestone-like, polished granite markers — honoring the reinterred remains at 2pm Saturday and a homegoing celebration on Sunday at 2pm.

Between the lines: ​​In 2016, during the rehabilitation of the chapel, archaeologists monitoring construction discovered the remains of men, women and children beneath the building's footprint.

  • The following year, the remains were exhumed and sent to Texas State University for analysis.
  • In 2021, archaeologists supervised the reinterment of the 36 individuals along the west side of the Oakwood Chapel.

Flashback: The Oakwood Cemetery was established as a city cemetery in 1839, and the Oakwood Cemetery Chapel was built in 1914 for funeral and memorial services on site.

  • The chapel was built in an area of the cemetery that had been set aside for burials of people of color and impoverished people.
  • Records show that a majority of interments within this area were African American individuals and families. Cemetery interment records list burials in the "Colored Grounds," "Negro Grounds," "Stranger's Grounds," "Mexican Grounds" and "Pauper Grounds."

What they're saying: "This monument marks the unknown journeys of individuals buried in the cemetery before the construction of the chapel," reads an engraved marker that is part of the new monument.

  • "Even though we don't know their names, we can still honor them and remember them," Jennifer Chenoweth, museum site coordinator at the Oakwood Cemetery Chapel and a co-designer of the monument, tells Axios. Memorializing them now is important "because of the erasure of the history of these people."

By the numbers: The monument cost $49,430 to build and install.

How to go: RSVP to the free event and read the event schedule here.

The bottom line: "It’s important to celebrate lives of people who were put to rest with no markers, no celebration, no acknowledgement," Carmaleta McKinnis-Williams, an equity and inclusion officer with the city who will host a racial healing circle on Saturday morning at the cemetery, tells Axios.

  • "This is about some celebration, some righting of wrongs, for the community.”
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