Jess Brown, Victoria Espinoza, Mary Huber and Karla Martinez
The city’s parks and recreation department works to breathe life into the city’s five municipal cemeteries, which hold more than a century of history and more than a century of misuse.
By MARY HUBER
Saundra Kirk buried her mother Willie Mae two years ago in an east-facing grave just off the main road that runs through Evergreen Cemetery. She marked the spot with a red granite headstone and places flowering plants in the grass there from time to time.
“Mother, she was one who was always a doer,” Kirk said of Willie Mae, who was an educator, community organizer and early champion of civil rights in the city. “She had a reputation in the community of being very generous and very big-hearted.”
At Willie Mae’s head lies Kirk’s brother, Lee, who died in 2004, marked with a simple, gray headstone. To the left and right are prominent community members – police chiefs, firefighters, public servants.
While alive, most resided in a close-knit community, from Seventh to Nineteenth streets, East Avenue to Airport Boulevard, when the city’s Jim Crow laws forced segregation of the African American population to a small pocket on the eastside. In 1926, Evergreen was plotted as their designated resting place. It was a time when the separate but equal doctrine bled all the way into the soil that buried the dead.
“You wouldn’t know going there now what an important place it is,” said Kim McKnight, the parks and recreation department’s preservation planner, who has devoted herself to restoring the city’s cemeteries and making sure people care about them again.
McKnight worked with contractors and landscape architects to create a master plan that improves conditions at the city’s five municipal cemeteries – Evergreen, Oakwood, Oakwood Annex, Plummers and Austin Memorial Park – which were deteriorating when the parks and recreation department took control of them in 2013.
At 510 pages, the Historic Cemetery Master Plan brings together historical accounts, photos, design plans, maintenance recommendations and a catalogue of every tree on the cemeteries’ combined 160 acres. It suggests improvements unique to each cemetery and was approved unanimously by city council Sept. 17.
If funded, it would allow the department to plant trees, reset gravestones, raise new fences and construct columbariums, where cremated remains can be stored.
It would also install signs and other wayfinding systems to help visitors find their loved ones’ graves, a challenge at all the city cemeteries, whose records are still handwritten and haven’t made the transition to the digital age.
Kirk has spent many days walking through the rows of gravestones at Evergreen, searching out old friends and lovers, teachers, people Willie Mae used to talk about around the kitchen table growing up.
“I might be in a particular section on a certain day. And it’s a pretty day. And I just start walking and looking at stones,” Kirk said. “It’s almost like discovering hiding places for people.”
Kirk commissioned the placement of 13 monument stones at the resting sites of her family’s unmarked graves. It brought her to the cemetery many mornings and many afternoons.
“Evergreen,” she said, and sighed. “There’s just a sweetness to it.”
In the 1950s, her family had a house between East Eleventh and Twelfth Streets, on a hill with a view of the university and Capitol building. Kirk was quiet, a loner, and she often wandered through Oakwood Cemetery, which was closer to her house.
“I would go in by that back side gate and just kind of be enchanted with it,” she said.
The city’s first cemetery, Oakwood was plotted in 1839, when Austin was established as the capital of the independent Republic of Texas.
Today, many of its gravestones sink into the foundation. Some are chipped and cracked by mowers, crumbled pieces left scattered in the grass. Years of drought have sucked the water from the roots of its historic trees, so that almost half have died.
At the north end, Dale Flatt points to a box tomb that’s broken in pieces, either from vandalism or heavy weather.
Flatt is the founder of the nonprofit Save Austin’s Cemeteries, which was established more than a decade ago to help the city repair its cemeteries. He also leads groups, where he shares the histories of the people buried in these sacred spaces.
“We view the cemetery as an outdoor museum,” Flatt said, noting the graves of Governors Hogg and Pease and many of Austin’s original founders.
All were buried in Oakwood before 1910. The cemetery stopped selling plots long ago.
“The cemetery is really the only piece of property you sell once, but you’re expected to maintain it forever,” Flatt said.
This creates a struggle when funding improvement projects. The only two active city cemeteries are Evergreen and Austin Memorial Park, where the sale of burial spaces contributes revenue to the parks and recreation department.
In order to finance the master plan, the department will have to secure funds from the city at the next bond election. Additional money will come from donations and partnerships with foundations in the area.
However, the cost is significant.
“We have education needs, affordable housing needs. We have people living in poverty. Why would you invest in a cemetery?” McKnight asked, aware of the strains on the city. “But I would argue that how we care for these spaces are kind of indicative about who we are as a people.”
McKnight said it is a process of setting priorities and confronting one problem at a time, beginning with the renovation of Oakwood’s Gothic Revival chapel, a $1.2 million project that is expected to break ground next year.
The rest of the recommendations could take as long as 25 years to complete.
But that doesn’t deter McKnight, who said she is proud of the work she completed with her team, the compilation of information that spans decades and acres, the connections she has made with people along the way.
“There has not been a single meeting that I have facilitated that I don’t have somebody who is letting me know that their parents are buried here, their children are buried here, their siblings are buried here,” McKnight said. “You’re got people with tears in their eyes telling you, ‘You are making plans in a sacred place to me.’”
One was Billye Schulle, who came to every planning meeting, rolling her oxygen tank behind her. Several months into the project, McKnight got a note that Schulle had died. Several of the staff attended her funeral. Her husband Ross came to the meetings in her absence.
Schulle is buried in Austin Memorial Park, tucked away amid the live oak trees that wrap between its graves.
And just five miles to the south, Kirk, now 71, reserved her space at Evergreen, in the L-shaped cluster of plots beside her mother Willie Mae.
A WALKING TOUR OF AUSTIN’S CEMETERIES
FUNDING THE AFTERLIFE