Archaeologists discover burial sites under Oakwood Cemetery Chapel in East Austin

"My heart stopped when I heard that in 1914 a chapel was built on top of graves because I'm sure at that point people knew that there were graves in that particular section of the cemetery.  And so the lack of humanity hit me at that point," District 1 City Council Member Ora Houston said during a Tuesday morning press conference at City Hall.

The East Austin cemetery now called Oakwood was established in 1839, according to the City of Austin.  In 1914 a mortuary chapel was built.

"The section that we're talking about now was a segregated section called the 'colored grounds'" said Tonja Walls-Davis, the City's Cemeteries Manager.

"It was a processing place for people who were about to be interred here.  If you went to this cemetery, this is where you went.  This is where the money was taken, this is where you paid the money," said local archaeologist and cemetery advocate Fred McGhee.

In October of 2016, construction began on rehabilitating the chapel for use as a visitors center.

Due to the sensitive nature of the work, the City secured a Texas Historical Commission "Antiquities Permit" and private archaeological firm Hicks & Company was called in to help.

"As we were going through trying to do the pier drilling to stabilize the chapel...that's when we discovered the remains," Walls-Davis said.

Underneath the footprint of the Oakwood Chapel, archaeologists discovered what they believe to be an estimated 25 burial sites.  Construction was immediately stopped.  Since then the team has been evaluating what's there.

"We don't want people disturbing anything, we don't want people going in trying to look...because this, as I said in my comments, this is holy ground to me and my community and so I ask that people be respectful," Houston said.

So the question of the day: what now?  Parks and Recreation Historic Resources Manager Kim McKnight says they'll be asking the public what they want.

"We would expect a very large degree of interpretation, commemoration and quite frankly an element of reclamation for this site and we hope to facilitate that in partnership of the community," McKnight said.

While visiting the site Tuesday afternoon, Fox 7 ran into city cemetery advocate Sharon Blythe.

"I came here today to pay my respects to them quite frankly," Blythe said.

Blythe believes the City has more investigating to do after Oakwood.

"Because every cemetery in the City of Austin probably has this same situation and City Council needs to focus more globally on the cemeteries," she said.

What she would like to see happen is the chapel shored up and moved to Austin Memorial Park.

"Then they can honor these people that are under that chapel more appropriately and make sure this never happens again," Blythe said.

Fred McGhee is an archaeologist and cemetery advocate.  He says the city is doing the right thing by involving the public.

"What it will require ultimately, because this is a municipal cemetery, is political will on the part of our elected officials.  Because I guarantee you in a growing city like Austin this isn't going to be the last time something like this happens," McGhee said.

McGhee says whether or not Austin knew there were bodies at the site in 1914 -- is the wrong question.

"Whether they knew or not it didn't matter.  They were going to build.  Because black lives didn't matter," McGhee said.

The City will be holding a public meeting on this subject.  That is Saturday, March 25th from 10 am to noon at the Delores Duffy Recreation Center.
               
The City is also recommending putting together a working group to help figure out what the next steps are.
 

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