The Forgotten Gravestones of Houston’s History

Restoring the city’s oldest African-American cemetery, one headstone at a time.

By Brittanie Shey January 5, 2016 Published in the January 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

0116 on the town the descendants brown gravestone by kasey french nxw5nt

Image: Kasey French 

They call it Olivewood-itis. Houstonian Kasey French was just 16 in 2011 when she came down with the condition on her first visit to Olivewood Cemetery, to volunteer for the Girl Scouts. That’s when she met Margott Williams.

“She was standing on her tree stump with her weed whacker, and she was so passionate about the story of Olivewood that it really got to me,” says French, now a sophomore at the University of Texas.

For decades, Houston’s first African-American cemetery was largely forgotten. Located on a pocket of land just west of Studemont below I-10 and surrounded by warehouses, the place was overgrown with vines and ravaged by floods—that is, until 2003, when Williams founded a nonprofit called Descendants of Olivewood and set about restoring it.

“It is the oldest African-American cemetery in Houston,” says Williams, whose grandfather is one of more than 4,000 people buried there. “It was incorporated in 1875, but some of the headstones reflect burial before then.” The most recent is from the 1980s.

As she participated in the cemetery’s regular cleanup days—according to Williams, it only takes about two weeks for Houston’s jungle-like vegetation to overtake the headstones—French became fascinated by its history and started bringing her camera along. “It was really kind of an Easter egg in Houston,” she says. “The longer I was there, the more stories I got to hear.”

The result is a haunting collection of images of the cemetery’s gravestones, many of them cracked, toppled and overgrown. The series goes on display this month at a new exhibit, Honoring Olivewood, at the National Museum of Funeral History.

“I’m really excited for the museum to be involved,” says Genevieve Keeney, the museum’s president. “I want visitors to look at the art and see the depth of the story behind it. I want them to know how they can get involved.”

French, who clearly has never gotten over her case of Olivewood-itis, today serves on the Descendants’ historical committee. “I have all these stories so deeply ingrained in my brain,” she says. “I consider Olivewood very close to my heart.”

Honoring Olivewood, Jan. 30–May 29. National Museum of Funeral History, 415 Barren Springs Dr. 281-876-3063. nmfh.org 

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