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Decision on unmarked graves, chapel at Oakwood Cemetery coming in April

Monday, March 27, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

Austin officials plan to have an idea next month of how to move forward with construction work on the chapel at Oakwood Cemetery that was halted in November when unrecorded burial sites were discovered under the building.

Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department, which manages five city cemeteries, is working to learn more about the remains and how to properly commemorate them while still completing restoration work of the historic chapel building, which is more than a century old. The rehabilitation project, which is funded through a 2012 bond approval, was approved to stabilize its foundation, address drainage issues, make it accessible to the disabled and improve its plumbing and electrical systems.

At a community meeting on Saturday at the Delores Duffie Recreation Center, about 50 residents and local officials discussed the best way to handle the sensitive issue, given a combination of limitations. The building’s and cemetery’s historic designation combined with the chapel’s condition make it impossible to move to another site, and attempting to remove the 44 burial sites on the property would destabilize the chapel too much.

The issue is a sensitive one because of Oakwood’s history as a cemetery for Austin’s residents of color, with an estimated 1,200 burials in its section for people of color from 1859 to 1880, and more in later years. Records for many of those burials are scarce or nonexistent, and the lack of headstones in many cases made it possible for entire sections containing remains to be forgotten about.

The chapel site has been blocked off while parks department staff work to determine its future, with the price tag for its completion certain to climb, though estimates for its eventual total cost are still undetermined. Feedback on the issue will be accepted through April 5, with recommendations for next steps slated to be revealed at an April 7 community meeting.

At Saturday’s session, residents favored efforts to identify or get as much information as possible about the remains in the burial sites so the deceased can be appropriately memorialized. Some pushed for deconstructing and moving the chapel building so the burial sites could be marked in the open, while one attendee suggested installing a glass floor in the chapel so visitors would see the sites under their feet.

“There’s always a way to move forward, but you have to listen first and realize that you can’t please all of the people all the time,” said City Council Member Ora Houston, whose district includes the Oakwood property. “They’re telling us that there are options for what can be done, and I want to hear what the people think. By April we’ll be ready to move forward and do the real concrete work, which is important because every time it rains, something else on the site will wash away.”

Kevin Johnson, a project coordinator for the parks department, said he is investigating the possibility of submitting the chapel project for historic preservation funding available from the city’s hotel occupancy tax revenue. He said Saturday’s session showed it will be possible to move forward quickly enough to protect the site from deterioration while still paying respect to the remains.

“I was really encouraged by the conversation, because there were lots of questions at the start and people wanted to learn everything they can and start a dialogue,” he said. “It’s such a volatile issue, but no one is unreasonable on how we’re planning to deal with it.”

Efforts to commemorate the remains will involve multiple local organizations, including the Saving Austin’s Cemeteries group and the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center. Bamidele Demerson, site manager and curator for the museum, said gatherings like Saturday’s are necessary for the community to decide together how to respond to a difficult situation.

“It’s a whole set of thorny issues with no easy answers, and we’re tasked with the responsibility of coming to a resolution,” he said. “We don’t have options to leave those graves exposed, and the chapel in a state of disrepair, so it’s up to the community to determine how to pay respect to those buried under the chapel and let things move forward.”

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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