Officials and community members with Olivewood Cemetery, Houston’s oldest incorporated African American cemetery, are fighting to protect the burial grounds from encroachment by a proposed five-story sports facility.

The backstory

Established in 1875, the 7.5-acre cemetery preserves the untold stories and history of around 4,000 emancipated African Americans after the Civil War in the late 1800s. It is located at 1300 Court St., Houston.

Although the cemetery was deemed abandoned by the city of Houston in the 1970s, it has been under the care of a group called the Descendants of Olivewood Cemetery since 2003. The group's volunteer board of trustees has been tasked with restoring and preserving the cemetery, including through the pursuit of grant funding.

The situation

The Descendants of Olivewood Cemetery are now battling development plans from Maximo Builders for a five-story sports facility on two of the cemetery’s adjacent lots, Board Member Paul Jennings said. Plans have temporarily stalled after Maximo was denied a parking variance in July by the Houston Planning Commission that would have allowed it to proceed with the project despite having fewer parking spaces than what is required under city law.

However, Jennings said the project itself is still in the works, and the fight is not over. Community Impact has reached out to Maximo Builders for comment and will update this article with any new information.

What they're saying

"This [cemetery] really tells the story of Houston, a story that's largely untold," Jennings said. "These people were enslaved, and then they were emancipated, and they thrived. That's a story."

Zooming in

Those buried at the cemetery range from prominent elite to Union veterans to regular community members, Jennings said. Those buried include:
  • Roughly a dozen Union Army soldiers
  • Lucy Farrow, the niece of Frederick Douglass and one of the founders of the modern Pentecostal church
  • John Brown Bell, a wealthy businessman who served on the executive committee of the National Negro Business League, of which Booker T. Washington was president
  • Richard Allen, twice elected to the Texas House of Representatives
  • Richard Brock, an alderman who was active in the growth of Emancipation Park
A closer look

Although the land where Maximo plans to build is not officially within the boundaries of Olivewood Cemetery, Jennings said there is a chance the grounds contain the remains and unmarked children’s graves. Jennings cited aerial photos from the 1940s along with affidavits from residents alleging that graves exist on the land Maximo plans to develop. Members of the Houston Planning Commission also found the evidence compelling in their decision to deny the parking variance.

Moving forward

As proposed, the sports facility would also close off entrances to the cemetery and raise parking concerns, Jennings said. He said he believed the best outcome would be a third-party organization, such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation or Houston Land Bank, buying and donating the land. Ideally, the land would be property excavated, and useable land could be converted into a community center, Jennings said.

What's next

As cemetery caretakers await what comes next, Jennings said the public is invited to take part in biweekly cleanup sessions that take place on the first and third Saturday of each month.