Segregated history haunts cemetery

By Monét Gerald, Houston Hall, Alyssa Winn – 

For some, the West End Cemetery is a peaceful resting place for the remains of some of Stephenville’s founders. For others, however, it’s a reminder of a painful chapter in the city’s history about a decision almost 91 years ago to exhume and relocate the bodies of dozens of blacks buried there.

Billy Chew shows Texan News Service staff a map of the West End Cemetery. (Houston Hall, Texan News Service)

Billy Chew shows Texan News Service staff a map of the West End Cemetery.
(Houston Hall, Texan News Service)

Much about the decision is murky today. It’s not clear when the bodies were actually relocated. Nor is it clear how many bodies were moved. And people disagree about why the bodies of blacks buried there were relocated to what a newspaper from the era described as “Negro Burial Grounds.”

“People didn’t mind being buried next to (Native Americans); they didn’t want to be buried next to blacks,” said Billy Chew, who is now the supervisor of the Stephenville’s three cemeteries – West End, East End, and Mount Olive, where the remains now rest. “Dig them up here, move them to Mount Olive. The blacks could be buried free from now on. Period. Forever.”

Dan Young, a Hico high school history teacher, said the decision came at a time when “the whole country was in a panic after World War I and the Ku Klux Klan was making a big comeback in the area.” Still, he described the decision to move the bodies as “unbelievably cruel and stupid.”

Cindy Shipman, a social studies teacher for Huckabay Independent School District, says she’s not sure whether the decision was made because of “anti-black feelings.”

The Mount Olive Cemetery at sunset. (Houston Hall, Texan News Service)

The Mount Olive Cemetery at sunset.
(Houston Hall, Texan News Service)

“I don’t believe there was any malicious intent on the part of the (cemetery) board moving the graves,” she said. “It is obvious to me that the board at West End had a need for additional land for burials, and saw the area occupied by the black section as a suitable place for expansion.”

Whatever the reason, on April 22, 1922 the Stephenville City Council approved the plan. The West End Cemetery Association then met with the Colored Burial Association of Stephenville to break the news that black bodies would be moved. As compensation for the bodies being removed, the West End Cemetery Association offered to pay the families of those that were being exhumed for future burial plots.

Three days after the council meetings, records show, the Colored Burial Association bought three acres of property from Chas Neblett. The area, which is now Mount Olive Cemetery, is on College Farm Road between what is now state Highway 108 and state Highway 281.

The Stephenville Tribune covered the purchase in May of the same year in an article headlined “Negro Burial Grounds.” The article did not mention that the blacks were forced to move but did mention that the blacks had plans to “beautify” the new cemetery.

Chew said it’s not clear exactly how long after the council approved the move that work on the new cemetery began.

“They had the meeting in 1922,” he said. “Now, when they dug Mount Olive, I don’t know.”

Other than the council log and the Erath County Clerk’s land deed about the plan to move the bodies, no documentation of the actual removal was found by the Texan News Service.

“The documents that are available are rather terse, and read fairly straight forward. The records are silent to who was on the new board and who actually funded the purchase of the land,” Shipman said.

Chew said he has no idea how many bodies were moved and some of the graves were unmarked.  “Some of them they marked, some of them they didn’t,” he said.

Shipman also acknowledged the unfairness of the incident.

“As to what gave the West End board the right to put their needs and wants over the needs and wants of the black community is unquestionably the deeply-rooted belief and practice of segregation and discrimination,” she said.

After the remains were moved to Mount Olive the responsibility of caring for the graves fell to the Colored Burial Association and the black community of Stephenville for a half century.

In 1972 the city of Stephenville took over the care and maintenance of Mount Olive, according to Billy Chew. The cemetery was initially supervised by Howard Phillips, who worked with Chew until Chew took over the supervisor position.

Phillips worked for the City of Stephenville for 24 years and believes that there are anywhere between 50 to 75 unmarked graves in Mount Olive. He said that at one point many of the currently unmarked graves were marked with temporary markers but they were either removed or the writing has faded away.

Cemetery Inscriptions, Vol. 2 Erath County, Texas, a book published in 1973, lists 24 bodies that were moved from West End to Mount Olive.

Some of these bodies include Phillips’ family members, one of which is Wallace Howell, who was Phillips’ great-grandfather. According to the book, birth and/or death dates are missing in at least five cases in which bodies were moved from West End to Mount Olive. For example, records show a woman identified as Janie Roe was 75-years-old but it is unknown what year she was born or when she died.

Phillips says he’s unaware of people in Stephenville’s black community holding any ill feelings toward the city for moving the bodies.

“Everybody that I know takes a great deal of pride in the cemetery itself,” Phillips said. “Before the city took it over we used to go out there as a community, we mowed it and kept it up as a community project once a month.”

Shipman echoed Phillips’ sentiment.

“Did that community have a voice to protests? Probably not,” she said, “Were they outraged and demoralized by the exhumations? I don’t know. After the 1920s did the black community celebrate and take pride in their cemetery? I think so.”

Thetis Edwards, an educator for the Stephenville school district, has researched the history of blacks in the Stephenville area. Edwards moved to Stephenville in 1984 and her husband’s family is buried at Mount Olive. She said that her husband’s family does not like to talk about the cemetery’s history, but that it is a heartbreaking story that needs to be told and that people want to know about it.

Edwards recalled when she first heard about the history of Mount Olive. “I was just speechless. I was just like whoa, whoa. I mean it was just heartbreaking to me when I heard that. And I was just like ‘Oh, my God.’ Back then black people didn’t have any say so, no say so. They just lost all their rights,” she said.

“People mostly tell me to keep it up,” she said. “If there are negative feelings no one has told me about it.”

Lathes Towns, the director for Transition and Family Relations at Tarleton, acts as an advisor for the Minority Student Leaders on campus.  Towns, who lives in Dublin, suggested that people instead of being angry, should look at the time the incident occurred.

“Race relations are sometimes blown so far out of proportion, and you have to look at the era,” Towns said. “I don’t think even the people that were making the request (to remove the remains) had a whole lot of hatred, it’s just part of what they grew up with.”

“It saddens me that we had an era that people had to live through,” Towns added. “Right now we are free from that to a certain extent in this area.”

Under the Stephenville City web site Mount Olive is not mentioned as one of the city’s three cemeteries.

“Young people now can’t understand racism or why whites were afraid of blacks,” Young said, “I think it’s ethnic insecurity. They’re worried they’re going to be outnumbered and outvoted by non-whites.”

“I started at Tarleton in ’61 and people that worked here said their kids weren’t allowed to go to school here (Stephenville),” Young added. “They had to be bused to Fort Worth because that was the closest place with a black school. The city has come a long way but there is still a lot of room for improvement.”

Race relations in Stephenville have improved, but still have a ways to go, Phillips says.

“I grew up having to go in back doors of restaurants…so I’ve seen the changes,” he said. “I know we still have a long way to go, but I know where we came from. At times I get angry but there’s not a whole lot I can do about it so there’s no use in making myself sick.”

Mount Olive continues to add new graves, one or two a year, Shipman says.

Edwards is working to get a state historical marker for Mount Olive Cemetery this summer, making its history an official part of Texas history.

“I do understand that all cemeteries hold history, but this cemetery, Mount Olive, relates to the true history of what happened,” Edwards said. “But I will say that this cemetery is a peaceful place and their souls are at rest.”


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