Developers rip out fence at Houston’s oldest Black cemetery

The Descendants of Olivewood had the fences installed around portions of the Olivewood property this summer.

Caretakers of the Olivewood Cemetery in Houston are left outraged after construction workers replaced a new fence with a concrete wall. 

The Descendants of Olivewood had the fences installed around portions of the Olivewood property this summer thanks to a $40,000 donation, The Houston Chronicle reports. Three months after the work was completed in August, workers on a construction site ripped out the fence and replaced it with a concrete wall. The wall installation is part of a new retail and office building on the adjacent property.

Multiple old brown wooden ruined crosses marking unknown graves in a graveyard. / AdobeStock

“When I saw it, I got dizzy, I thought I was going to faint because I could not believe these people had taken our fence down,” said Margott Williams, founder and president of Descendants of Olivewood. 

The nonprofit is “dedicated to the committed to the reclamation” of the cemetery, per the organization’s website. It is the city’s first incorporated cemetery for African Americans and extends an estimated eight acres. 

Despite years of innumerable layers of vegetation covering the headstones, only the graveyard’s more significant architecture was seen above the overgrowth of the cemetery. Black doctors, attorneys, and servicemen have reportedly been buried on the land since 1875. The land was previously used to bury enslaved people.

Descendants of Olivewood are committed to preserving the cemetery “as a historic, educational, charitable, religious and cultural site of importance,” reads a statement on the group’s website.

Williams said the Descendants of Olivewood “didn’t even know” a wall was being constructed near the northeast corner of the cemetery for retail space. 

“It’s not just a matter of a historic structure, there are people at rest in Olivewood, and a lot of them didn’t have agency throughout most of their lives,”  said Jasmine Lee, a board member of Descendants of Olivewood, via The Houston Chronicle.

“This was an act of agency for them to build this cemetery where it is, and for people to not respect that and not respect us as caretakers of the cemetery is unbelievable,” Lee added. 

After consulting a 2009 property survey, the Descendants built the fence directly on the property line, according to members. The contractors reportedly thought the fence was left over from the former Party Boy store that previously occupied the site. The fencing was removed without consulting anyone, according to The Houston Chronicle.

According to P.J. Jamea, a partner at Oxberry Group — the developers of the retail space, the fence was on the developers’ property but Jamea acknowledges that a mistake was made in ripping it out. The company has promised to re-erect the fence.

“I understand they’re upset, and it was a misunderstanding. The general contractor maybe should have reached out to us first, but for sure they’re our neighbors and we want to keep them happy,” said Jamea.

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