Waco: City aims to right past wrongs by bringing peace to disturbed graves

(Photo by Rissa Shaw)
(Photo by Rissa Shaw)(KWTX)
Published: May. 19, 2018 at 12:12 AM CDT
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A decade-long year journey to bring peace to some of Waco’s earliest inhabitants whose graves were disturbed during the expansion of the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum, came to a close this week.

The remains of about 200 people buried at First Street Cemetery, Waco’s oldest public cemetery established in 1852, are now in the process of being reinterred in Rosemound Cemetery.

Community members gathered as the city hosted a memorialization ceremony Thursday.

"We had the option to bury these remains in cardboard boxes, we chose not to, we chose to do it in the cedar which is much more respectful,” said John Wilson, Chairman of the First Street Cemetery Memorial Advisory Committee.

The Director of the Texas Collection at Baylor, John Wilson, chairs the committee formed in 2013 to right a series of wrongs which started in the 1960s.

"The charge is really to get the remains back in the ground,” said Wilson.

The remains were discovered in 2007 while digging the utility lines during construction on the Texas Ranger Company “F” Headquarters and Education Center located on part of the campground known as Fort Fisher Park.

The campground was created after the Waco City Council voted to relocate some neglected graves and markers in the lower terrace of First Street Cemetery in 1968.

However, the 2007 discovery indicates that only headstones, not the remains, were relocated in 1968.

“The ones disturbed, when building the Texas Rangers headquarters there, that was just in the trenching to get the utility lines,” said Wilson. "They were not thorough, and so there are bodies in the lower terrace that are unmarked, and there are hundreds, if not thousands."

The disturbed remains were excavated from 2007-2010 and put into cardboard boxes in the Ranger’s museum, Wilson said.

"Can you imagine going to work every day (and seeing that)?” he said.

Nesta Anderson, Senior Archaeologist at Pape-Dawson Engineers in Austin, was put in charge of the dig she said was only halfway completed when she arrived.

"When I came in there were a lot of open holes, there were a lot of piles of big dirt, and it was kind of unclear what had happened,” said Anderson.

She was told the project would only take six weeks but said it took two years to get everyone they needed out of the ground.

“We would take one step forward, two steps back, but the steps forward are so positive,” said Anderson. “We're doing things the right way, so it’s been very rewarding, and this is a lot of hard work from a lot of people in the Waco community."

Since unearthing the unidentified remains, Anderson said she’s been analyzing them, trying find out as much as she can about who they were.

"It's putting all those pictures together to see the complete picture of that individual, and then taking it out and doing the whole group,” she said.

A diverse group of about 140 people over the age of 15, and 60 juveniles ages 14 and under including 30 infants, most who were buried between 1880 and 1920.

“The preservation was very, very good on these bodies, but a lot of that has to do with soil conditions and drainage as well,” said Anderson.

Many of the graves had artifacts which showed the group included veterans, Masons, Odd Fellows, Woodmen of the World, Knights and Daughters of Tabor, and Court of Calanthe, according to a city press release.

Anderson said the group was comprised primarily of African Americans.

"In that time period there was a lot of beautification of death movement, people tended to have highly ornamented coffins, embalming had just been invented with the Civil War,” said Anderson.

She said details like gold teeth and decorative coffins manufactured out-of-state showed they were not paupers and had money, as did the fact that it appeared many died while fighting diseases, some we still have today.

"It is an honor for us to reconnect with this past Waco community,” said Anderson.

Partly because of this project, there are now more protections for unmarked graves, Anderson said.

“Unfortunately, this has happened in lots of other cities across the U.S. and in Texas,” she said.

Not all of the remains have been relocated to Rosemound Cemetery yet; she said some are still being analyzed and will slowly be reburied in groups.

“We're holding onto them as long as we can to make sure nobody has any questions before they go in...but it's time,” she said. “We’ve got another group that's about ready now."

Once all of the data is collected, copies of a final report will be filed with the Texas Historical Commission, the Texas Collection, and the Waco-McLennan County Library.

Anderson said a version of the report will be made available to the public online.

While the names of the people whose graves were disturbed will probably never be known, the archaeologist said learning they were going to be taken care of from now on has been the greatest discovery of all.

"It's not all science, we do definitely connect with these individuals and to see them reburied in a perpetual care’s peaceful,” said Anderson. “It gives you a feeling that the right thing has happened."