When Charles Cook first visited Olivewood Cemetery in 1993, he needed a machete to cut through overgrown brush that had sprouted there. No fence surrounded the property, and Cook recalls pushing through a junglelike maze to admire the statue of an angel that sits at the site’s center. The cemetery, where one of the former Boy Scout’s great-grandmothers is buried (and another might be, though he can’t find the plot) was incorporated in 1875 and is the oldest Black burial ground in Houston. For more than two decades, property near Houston’s Heights neighborhood had been neglected.
When Margott Williams went to the cemetery in 1999 after her grandmother died, she also found the burial site in disarray. She expected a cemetery located in a major city to be well-kept. The then 36-year-old peered in disbelief at all the trees and vines around where her grandfather was buried. “It just kept bugging me that Olivewood looked the way that it looked,” Williams says.
Williams got in touch with the county’s historical commission about preserving the site. A woman there urged her to start working on the cemetery upkeep herself. So Williams grabbed her own lawn mower and sickle and began hacking away at decades worth of overgrowth. During those solitary days trying to get the cemetery back in good condition, Williams shed tears and held conversations with her deceased grandfather as she worked on the lawn. “For years, I came out here pushing that lawn mower and doing all of those things, and sometimes I would keep looking at where I parked at, going—nobody yet? Do it for another hour or two. I’d look around—nobody yet? Then, you come do that day after day after day,” Williams explains.
Cook and Williams were connected by the county historical commission in 2004, and now are both part of the nonprofit Descendants of Olivewood, founded to preserve the legacy of their ancestors. The nonprofit was granted guardianship of the cemetery in 2008 after going head-to-head with another nonprofit in court. Shortly thereafter, a new fence was erected around the cemetery, and others in the neighborhood—Boy Scouts, church members, and companies doing community service—joined cleanup days to assist the pair.
Though the cemetery has been largely restored, it’s begun to face new challenges, including flooding and rainwater runoff from commercial development in the neighborhood that surrounds the cemetery. Cook and Williams want to make sure preservation of the site persists and doesn’t end with them. Their nonprofit received a $50,000 grant this summer from National Trust for Historic Preservation to help with site improvements.
“We will not be moved. We can’t be moved,” Cook, who’s 65, told me adamantly one day in September as we toured the site. “What happens if it reverts back to what it looked like in ’93? If we don’t have a succession plan? Or we don’t have an endowment set up, where it’s taken care of even when we dead and gone?”
When Cook started discussing the history of Olivewood Cemetery, where many of Houston’s Black trailblazers are buried, every word was filled with purpose. His voice echoed into the solemn trees shrouding the cemetery. “I think if I bleed, somebody cut me, it’s probably gonna bleed Olivewood,” Cook said.
Incorporated in 1875, Olivewood might’ve been a burial ground for slaves: two headstones date to 1869 and 1871, according to the Texas State Historical Association. Around four thousand Houstonians are buried at the site, including the city’s first Black alderman and cofounder of Emancipation Park, Richard Brock; educator and community leader James D. Ryan; and Dr. Charles B. Johnson, known as “the singing dentist” and creator of Houston’s bicentennial song “Houston is a Grand Old Town.”
David Bruner, a professor of anthropology at Lone Star College–CyFair in Harris County, has studied the cemetery for years, and before the pandemic, he would bring his students there to study the grave markers. He says the cemetery is filled with expressions of West African tradition: upright metal pipes that border graves, reverse writing on some markers, and seashell designs on stones. He and his students helped Olivewood get recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as part of the Slave Route project, which lists historic places that formed as a result of the African diaspora during the transatlantic slave trade.
“It’s a sad state of affairs that sites of the African diaspora are under-documented. They’re not as equally written about or researched as other types of sites across the United States,” says Bruner. “That’s why I refer to the Olivewood Cemetery as Harris County’s most important cultural resource, because it does express this window into our knowledge about African American history in a very unique way.”
In its early days, the cemetery was a source of pride among the Black community in Houston. Several Houstonians held shares in the cemetery, including the Reverend David Elias Dibble, a former slave who was the first ordained Black minister of Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church, according to TSHA. But in the 1940s, commercial and residential development spread throughout the neighborhood surrounding the cemetery. Businesses, including a design company and a grocery supplier, blocked access to an alleyway locals used to get to the site. The Olivewood Cemetery Association appealed to Mayor Oscar Holcombe to restore access in September 1950, and the city of Houston ended up selling the group a lot near the cemetery that allowed community members to reach the site, according to Cook. But over time, the cemetery became neglected, and burials stopped in the 1960s.
In the early 2000s, when Williams was attempting to preserve the site alone, she asked her deceased grandfather Cain Nelson Sr. for a sign. “You gotta show me something. Somebody gotta show me something,” Williams recalls saying. “God’s gotta show me something. Because I can’t keep doing this.” After several months of Williams’s solitary work, the woman at the historical commission connected Williams with a city councilman who recruited probationers to come out and start cleaning up the cemetery and cutting the grass. Williams also says a gentlemen with a bush hog cleared out the rest of the cemetery. Finally, she could see all the burial plots that had been covered in overgrowth. “I said, ‘Look at my people. This is my family,’ ” Williams says.
Now flooding and erosion problems have also riddled the historic site. It sits right next to White Oak Bayou, which routinely overruns its banks. As Cook puts it, “When White Oak Bayou cough, Olivewood got a flu. Real bad.” During Hurricane Harvey, the cemetery flooded severely; Paul Jennings, a seventy-year old who first discovered the cemetery on one of the volunteer cleanup days in the 2000s, estimates that parts of the cemetery were fifteen to twenty feet underwater. This summer, the cemetery withstood unusually rainy weather, but in September, Tropical Storm Nicholas barraged the site.
Some burial plots have been permanently damaged or lost forever, and aid for Olivewood’s preservation has become more necessary. The $50,000 grant the cemetery received from the National Trust for Historic Preservation is part of $3 million the group distributed through its African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund to forty historic sites across the country in an attempt to preserve Black history. With the money, the Descendants of Olivewood is working with some civil engineers to complete a study of the area and determine a master drainage plan. The group is also striving to have a solid database of the burials at the site, so family members can locate who’s buried there. Jennings also hopes the nonprofit can secure funding to fix up some of the damaged monuments within the cemetery. To achieve all that, Williams says the group will have to fundraise at least $2 million to $3 million.
Cook and Williams are hopeful they can form partnerships with local organizations to raise money. They have grand visions for the cemetery, believing one day it could be a park, and a museum could be built to honor local history. They plan to leave a written history of Olivewood so the story of its early years and repairs remains accessible for future generations. “This has been blood, sweat, and tears,” says Williams. “This has been a labor of love.”
On a sweltering day in September, Cook and Williams traversed the historic grounds under the soaring trees, stopping to admire different burial plots. They paused at a stately, freshly cleaned monument with elegant lettering for the Reverend A. F. Jackson, who was murdered in Dallas and buried at Olivewood in 1889. Nearby, other statues were faded or graying away. The pair walked to their own relatives’ plots, and Williams admired her family’s marker, which is ornamented with engraved flowers. At the center of the cemetery, the angel statue that Cook admired all those years before still stands, her face solemn and her hands in prayer position.
“If I die tomorrow, I can say, ‘Man, I did a pretty good deed while I was here,’ ” Cook says. “I gave my time. I gave my service to a good cause.”