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Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Do You Know the Location of Any Black Cemeteries in the Houston Area?

            I must have election fatigue tonight because I have no interest in writing anything about Donald Trump, Joe Biden, or his son Hunter. I am tired of hearing about corruption in high places but not hearing of any indictments. I am saddened to know that if Joe Biden becomes the next President of the United States that all the investigations done by Judge Durham, Attorney General Bill Barr, and others – including the Hunter Biden laptop scandal – will all suddenly disappear, never to be heard of again. So, I decided to write about something else tonight and found an interesting article by Sydney Walker in the Church News of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

            The above referenced article discusses an ongoing service project in Houston, Texas. It seems that several young service missionaries, their families, and leaders met last Saturday, October 17, 2020, at a cemetery to do a project. The project involves cleaning up the cemetery, identifying the people buried there, and compiling their family history.

The cemetery is the Historic Evergreen Negro Cemetery, and it contains the remains of about 5,000 people. These are not just ordinary people because they include slaves, Buffalo soldiers, and World War I veterans. More graves are discovered every week, but the total identified is several hundred.

The Historic Evergreen Negro Cemetery is one of approximately 4,000 historic Black cemeteries in Texas. Like Evergreen, many of them are overgrown, abandoned, and neglected. Evergreen was a bunch of vines and woods when it was discovered.

Dr. W. W. “Woody” Jones is the man who discovered Evergreen in the 1990s, and Donald Williams is a caretaker for the cemetery and the founder of Project R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

This project is the trustee for Evergreen as well as an organization that is “dedicated to researching, documenting, recovering, restoring, and protecting abandoned cemeteries.” The project was also instrumental in legislation that passed in Texas in 1995 that allows nonprofit organization to take over abandoned cemeteries.

            Jones and Williams invited Latter-day Saints and other organizations to help in the efforts to “restore the cemetery, identify graves, and construct family trees.” Jones recognizes that “The genealogy is important and critical to finding our ancestors.” He hopes that the genealogy work done at Evergreen will extend to the other properties being discovered.

For local Latter-day Saints, what started as a service opportunity for missionaries has evolved into a pilot project with FamilySearch and a community-outreach initiative now nested under the direction of an Area Seventy and stake presidents.

Using Evergreen as a model, the objective is to locate historic Black cemeteries in the Greater Houston area and work with their stewards to help identify the names of those buried and build family trees.

            Elder Sean Douglas, an Area Seventy, knows that the project is “just getting started.” He also knows that involving many people can make the work lighter and faster.

We bring the ability to identify who’s there, and we bring helping hands to help them along the way – should they ask for it, should they want, should they desire…. We’re trying to do it hand in hand with the community. This is not our project. It’s a joint project, wherever we might be welcome.

            There is a “treasure trove” for family history in the area. After President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1865, many of the newly freed slaves moved to the southeast Texas area and found work as indentured servants for plantation owners.

            Jim Crow laws marginalized Black Americans,” and segregation was enforced in every aspect of life and death. Thus, the establishment of Black cemeteries, which were neglected for many years.

            FamilySearch is working with community leaders in a pilot project to identify the people buried in the various Black cemeteries in a seven-county area. The counties include Harris County, Brazoria County, Fort Bend County, Montgomery County, Washington County, Galveston County, and Walker County.

            In addition, the Record Linking Lab at Brigham Young University – under the direction of Dr. Joseph Price – will use “automated tools to pull from Texas death records previously digitized and indexed by FamilySearch.” Even though just the name of the person and the death date are on the indexed records, the records help to locate people when the tombstones or gravestones cannot be read. Even though they may not be able to identify the exact place of burial, they will be able to tell families in which cemetery their loved one was buried. According to Price, “FamilySearch will work with the community if they choose to add those names into the family tree” when the names of the people in a specific cemetery are known.

Once they get the family tree, it can be a connected experience with other records that exist, and for the families to search and find. We’ll also be sharing that information back with each of those people that have responsibility for the cemetery.

            John and Denise Allen (Westlake Ward, Houston Texas Bear Creek Stake) were called to coordinate this community-outreach initiative – the Black Heritage Initiative. Their role will be to identify Black cemeteries and work with trustees assigned to oversee them. From there they will help leaders of 22 stakes in Greater Houston to “adopt” a cemetery and mobilize stake resources to “beautify the site and build family trees.” The next step would be to help the members of the African American community “to do their own family history and build their own family trees.”

            The project will not only help people to connect to their ancestors, but it will also help to build “bridges of understanding, appreciation, recognition, and mutual respect.” This is a project that will take time, effort, and cooperation, but it can have lasting effect on many people – both dead and alive.

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