These people are not as well known as they should be; neither is their final resting place. The 7-acre plot in the Old Sixth Ward is the oldest African-American cemetery in Houston. Shaded by venerable oak, elm and pecan trees just off Studemont, a couple of blocks south of Interstate 10, it’s nestled in a bend of White Oak Bayou, which is gradually eroding away the sacred space.
Cook, who works for a medical distribution center and devotes an estimated 500 hours annually to Olivewood, was unaware of the cemetery until he happened upon the site in 1992. It was founded in 1875 near a railroad junction called Cheneyville, although slaves may have been using it as a burial ground before it became an official cemetery. It may be home to more than 4,000 graves, Cook said, although most are unmarked because their headstones have been lost or stolen, or they never had headstones.
When Cook discovered Olivewood, no one had been buried there for at least 30 years. It was practically invisible. A photo taken in the 1990s shows a couple of white marble obelisks poking up through lush growth worthy of a rain forest.
“It was just forest, completely overgrown,” Cook said. Once he found out a few years later that his great-great grandparents were buried at Olivewood, he made it his mission to bring the cemetery back to life, so to speak. He’s still at it.
Something similar happened to Margott Williams, a Houston resident whose grandmother died in 1999. Williams wanted her grandmother and grandfather to be together, in Olivewood, but when she visited the cemetery, she could barely tell what it was because of the vegetation. In 2008, she and Cook co-founded Descendants of Olivewood, Inc. Williams serves as president.
“It just kept nagging me all those years,” she told me as she strolled through the cemetery. “My sister knew a genealogist, so I got in touch with her. My goal was to honor the people buried here, to tell their stories. The history is so beautiful, we need to honor these people.”
Paul Jennings, a retired technical writer, got involved with Olivewood when he noticed the sign of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) carved into the distinguished-looking grave marker of Charles M. Ferguson. Jennings is an active member of the fraternal organization.
Ferguson, born a slave in Houston in about 1860, graduated from Fisk University in Nashville and moved to Richmond, where he was elected clerk of the district court in Fort Bend County in 1882, 1884 and 1886. He also owned a 1,500-acre plantation on Jones Creek.
Ferguson was one of the featured speakers at Houston’s 1885 Emancipation Day celebration. A Houston newspaper account of the day-long event recorded in full his long, flowery, hopeful oration. Education and wealth would overcome the outrages and injustice to which Black people had been subjected, he assured his listeners. “Before these two powers,” he predicted, “the last relic of American slavery will disappear and we, with renewed energy and enlivened hope, will move on to that grand and glorious future which awaits us.”
For Ferguson, the more immediate future was not so grand and glorious. Three years after his oration, he was forced to flee Fort Bend during the notorious Jaybird-Woodpecker War. In 1889, he filed a civil rights suit against the Jaybirds and was awarded a $13,000 out-of-court settlement. He died in 1906.
“These were really successful people,” Jennings said. “These were not poor people. The remarkable thing about them was that a lot of them were born into slavery.”
Elias Dibble is interred at Olivewood. He was pastor of Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest African-American church in Houston. He also began his life as a slave and arrived in Houston after being freed, determined to make a new life for himself, his family and members of the Black community.
John Brown Bell was just as determined. He drove a delivery wagon, expanded into the grocery business and started buying property around the Houston area until he was a wealthy man. He also was instrumental in persuading the city to build a “colored library” and served on the board of Emancipation Park.
The Houston Redbook in 1915 headlined its profile of the prominent Houstonian as “J.B. Bell, Capitalist.” The society publication also noted that Bell “is the owner of a large seven-passenger Cadillac. . . and he and his wife are generous dispensers of their hospitality with the same. They purchased a large car so as to be able to carry their friends along with them on their pleasure jaunts and across-country tours.”
Frank Vance owned an ice cream factory, and Milton Baker, a dentist, owned rental properties around town. The large angel atop the Baker monument has become the Olivewood trademark.
Olivewood is the final resting place of Joseph Vance Lewis, the first African-American lawyer to win a case before a Harris County jury in favor a Black client accused of murder. Also at Olivewood is Dr. Charles B. Johnson, “the singing dentist” and author of Houston’s bicentennial song, “Houston is a Grand Old Town.”
Lucy Farrow, a Holiness minister and the niece of Frederick Douglass, is buried at Olivewood. In 1906, she was part of the famous Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, where she was known as the “anointed handmaiden” who laid her hands on believers who received the Holy Spirit and the gift of tongues. She died in Houston in 1911.
A small, non-descript gravestone, now leaning to one side in the soft earth, commemorates the life of Houston resident Tenolia Edwards. “For the longest time, we thought Tenolia Edwards was a she,” Williams said, “but he’s a he.”
Records indicate he was born in Africa and presumably came to America on a slave ship. He also was on the voting rolls during the short-lived Reconstruction era (as were Margott Williams’ ancestors).
Olivewood also interests anthropologists, who investigate vestiges of pre-emancipation burial practices that originated in West Africa. You’ll find upright pipes signifying a link between the worlds of the living and the dead, seashells as grave ornaments and text containing upside down or backward spelling, so that those who have passed can read them as if through a mirror.
Cook plans to retire next year, which means he can add to his 500-plus hours volunteering, but he and his organization need help. Volunteers are welcome in the ongoing effort to find out more about the cemetery and the surrounding community and to continue the never-ending task of keeping Mother Nature at bay.
The Descendants group also needs money to hire landscape architects and engineers to rescue the cemetery from the encroaching bayou. “We’ve been told that within 25 years Olivewood won’t be here,” Williams says.
She’s determined to prevent that. Houston should be just as determined.
The Descendants of Olivewood, Inc., are planning a celebration at the cemetery on Saturday, Juneteenth, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. For information, go to the website, www.descendantsofolivewood.org.
This content was originally published here.