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Oakwood Cemetery chapel report soon to be released

Friday, January 31, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

After years of anticipation, the Parks and Recreation Department has finalized its report on the East Austin Oakwood Cemetery chapel restoration project. The two-volume report will soon be delivered to the Texas Historical Commission for review.

The city received the first volume of the report from Hicks and Company, the archaeological firm that conducted the excavations and exhumations, in April 2019. Since then, the city has held on to it while waiting for the second volume, the bioarchaeological report – a study of the human remains – to be completed. The public should be able to view the final report late next month, following review from the Texas Historical Commission.

The restoration project quickly caught the attention of the public in November 2016, when a construction team discovered small bone fragments while drilling for a pier shaft in a chapel in the racially segregated “Historic Colored Grounds” portion of the cemetery. The city put an immediate hold on the project and former Council Member Ora Houston reached out to black clergy in East Austin for guidance on how to proceed.

Since those initial meetings, Fred McGhee, of the archaeological and environmental consulting firm Fred L. McGhee & Associates, said the city hasn’t kept its promise to keep the East Austin community up to speed. McGhee brought the issue to the Human Rights and Historic Landmark commissions this week with questions regarding the city’s silence around the project.

Noting that the city has yet to submit the draft archaeological report to the Texas Historical Commission, McGhee said the city has made poor decisions it now wishes to sweep under the rug.

“One of the reasons, of course, is because the state will review it and we’ve brought to the state’s attention some irregularities,” McGhee said. “So the city is in a bind now, because the city clearly has done some things that are not in compliance with the state or the federal permitting that they received for this project.”

“I do concede that some time has passed,” Kim McKnight, Parks and Recreation program manager for historic preservation and heritage tourism, told the Austin Monitor on a phone call this week. Rather than an attempt to keep information covered up, McKnight said the reason for the delay is that the bioarchaeological report, led by Kate Spradley of the Texas State University Forensic Anthropology Center, took longer than expected.

McKnight said the city is anxious to engage the community again with the information gleaned from the new report. At this level of analysis, she said, the city will be able to understand quite a bit about the conditions of the individuals during their lives, including details such as age, sex, race, existing medical issues, and potentially cause of death.

With that information, the parks department will initiate a commemorative process this spring involving a ceremony, the installation of a permanent memorial, an educational symposium to discuss the report’s findings, and the creation of a digital exhibit at the restored chapel.

However, McGhee said the bioarchaeological analysis is not sufficient given the events that took place. According to his experience and research, the city has avoided following a wide range of burial protocols that include conducting a DNA analysis on the remains and notifying any next of kin. Instead, he said, the city has tried to sidestep making the restoration into an African American archaeological project.

It’s entirely possible, he said, that such a project could have taken years to complete and cost millions of dollars, but that should not be an excuse. “That’s what you have in a growing city – what do you expect? You’re supposed to budget for that,” McGhee said.

One of McGhee’s objections to the project is that the archaeological team chose to use heavy machinery to excavate after hand excavating was determined to be inefficient and costly. He said using that type of equipment is “not advisable in a cemetery anytime, anywhere.” He is also critical of the decision to run utility pipes through the cemetery over known gravesites, disrupting those burials.

McKnight said those decisions were made by the archaeological team following the conditions outlined in the antiquities permit granted by the Texas Historical Commission. If there was anything done outside of those parameters, she said, the state will make it clear in its upcoming review.

Human Rights commissioners showed interest in pursuing an examination of the project to determine the facts.

“I’m an Austin native, so I take this very personally,” said Commissioner Jared Breckenridge. “Many of my family members were buried in Evergreen Cemetery. It worries me that this is already happening, it has happened, and that it could possibly happen to our loved ones one day.”

Commissioner Kristian Caballero said she would create and participate in a working group to study the issue further.

“It’s appalling to me that this is only happening because it’s poor people of color and that our city would just overlook that,” said Commissioner Idona Griffith.

McKnight said the department has done everything it can to restore dignity to the gravesites and plans to soon complete the process by reburying the bodies in the cemetery.

“This has not been an easy project, and it’s been heartbreaking on many levels to think of these people that have been forgotten,” she said.

Photo of Oakwood excavation courtesy of the city of Austin.

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