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Photo by City of Austin, Archaeologist working next to Burial 8

City to rebury remains of those exhumed during Oakwood Cemetery chapel project

Tuesday, May 19, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

The final two-volume report on the Oakwood Cemetery chapel restoration project was released to the public Thursday, marking the beginning of the next step in the project’s long, complicated history: the reburial of the remains of 36 people whose graves were disrupted and exhumed during the rehabilitation of the historic East Austin landmark.

The Austin Parks and Recreation Department has hired environmental engineering firm Weston Solutions to carry out the next phase of the project that will begin with locating and preparing an area near the chapel to rebury the individuals whose graves date from mid-to-late 19th century.

The chapel restoration project came to a halt in November 2016 when human remains were discovered while drilling for support pier shafts in the chapel interior. An archaeology team exhumed the remains and sent them off for analysis. Construction then resumed and the chapel project was completed in August 2018.

A remembrance ceremony and educational symposium are planned following the reinterment, but Kim McKnight, program manager for historic preservation at Parks and Recreation, told the Austin Monitor that the Covid-19 crisis is complicating project schedules and plans.

However, Fred McGhee, a local archaeologist and vocal critic of the city’s guidance over the restoration project, said he is not convinced, based on a memo from the department last week, that there is a decent plan for the burial process.

“A memo is not a proper burial treatment plan that is generated by qualified individuals and that has been vetted by the next of kin and the descendant community in general,” he said via email.

McGhee said DNA testing should be done both for the value of scientific research and for the opportunity of identifying the remains and allowing for burial services. He said the need for testing is a “no-brainer,” especially given that the non-invasive bioarchaeological analysis conducted by Texas State University’s Forensic Anthropology Center was not able to assign a sex or near ethnic match for children or infants, constituting 15 of the 36 individuals.

Since the chapel was built over the historical “Colored Grounds,” a section of the cemetery where minorities and indigent people were buried, McGhee also objected that the analysis was not conducted at a laboratory with more experience in African American anthropology.

Of the remains given a biological affiliation based on DNA reference samples, six were considered nearest to “19th-century American black,” seven were closest to “20th-century Mexican,” six mostly resembled “19th-century American white,” and one was deemed “Asian” by a broad estimation.

Documented burials and exhumations in Oakwood Cemetery.

In keeping with standards outlined in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, McGhee said the city needs to make a “good-faith effort” at identifying the remains and notifying any of their descendants to allow them a chance to inform the reburial protocol. If no relatives can be identified, he said, cultural descendants can take on that responsibility.

“It is silly to propose symposia and other academic-sounding public meetings, when the archaeology you have conducted has not been done in keeping with basic and long-established practice,” he said.

“I’ve expressed my disappointment to city as well as state officials, most of whom, in my judgment, are in serious dereliction of their duty as public officials regarding this issue,” McGhee said. “We need proper accountability – no more sweeping inconvenient facts under the rug. Desecration of burials is a serious matter, especially on the part of public officials.”

Among his strongest objections to the city’s work at Oakwood Cemetery was the decision to run a sewage line over gravesites and allow it to remain after learning of the burials beneath. Based on current evidence, he said, that sewage line needs to be dug up and rerouted around the graves.

While there is no plan to determine the identities and relations of the individuals, McKnight said a burial plan will be created and presented to stakeholders and city leaders once the engineering team determines an appropriate location for the reburials.

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