The nothingness surprised me.
I stepped over the low stone wall and walked down the path to the river. The water of the Brazos River stood still in the summer evening, reflecting only a slightly blurred image of the I-35 bridge crossing into downtown Waco, Texas.
Behind me stretched the green lawn of the Fort Fisher campground. I had just walked from the Texas Ranger Museum, skirting the modern edge of the old First Street Cemetery, as I made my way down to the riverbank.
The historian in me knew I had just walked across a graveyard. Yet no visible evidence of it remains.
Unlike the part of the cemetery closer to the highway, the upper terrace of the old First Street Cemetery, no headstones marked the resting places of the early Waco families buried nearer the river.
Only a very recent historical marker, placed near the (now) main entrance of First Street Cemetery, indicates the 19th-century graveyard once encompassed a much larger area.
“In the 1890s,” the marker states, “burials were dug in tiers which resulted in the disturbance of previous burials. In 1968, after years of neglect, the Waco City Council voted to relocate graves and/or markers in the lower terrace of the cemetery to the upper terrace. The lower terrace became a recreational campground known as the Fort Fisher Park.”
In other words, part of the cemetery has disappeared.
The origin of First Street Cemetery dates all the way back to 1852 when the thriving Waco community established their first city burial ground on the south bank of the Brazos River.
Originally, it comprised five acres purchased for the city and augmented by an additional two acres from the local Masonic lodge. A third area was added in 1868 or 1869 by the local lodge for the International Order of Odd Fellows.
An 1869 city map shows the property that became a fourth addition to the cemetery in 1882.
Although many of the graves in the cemetery have been affected by the changing urban landscape around it, it is the last addition to the cemetery that seems to have been affected the most. It is the part that has mostly disappeared.
Would it surprise you to learn this is the part of the cemetery that was dedicated to Waco’s non-white population?
Bradford Willis and John Griggs wrote in a short paper, titled “The Predominately African-American Section of First Street Cemetery of Waco, Texas,” that “This map with a ‘formally designated colored cemetery’ at First Street Cemetery does not appear in the known written histories of Waco and McLennan County.”
And some of the people who later learned about it seem to have minimized its existence, calling the area an “‘informal burial ground’ for paupers.”
As Willis and Griggs have written, “This section of First Street Cemetery/Fort Fisher Park has been dismissed by some of having any historical significance. It has been referred to many times in local newspaper articles as just an informal burial ground for paupers.”
A decision made by the City of Waco in 1968 helped erase the memory of this cemetery when the lower terrace burial site was turned into a recreation area. While the graves were supposed to have been relocated and reburied to the upper terrace of First Street Cemetery, they apparently were not.
A construction project begun in 2007 unearthed some 250 to 300 unmarked graves.
The cold hard truth seems that, in 1968, the (I suspect mostly white) leaders of Waco turned an old Black cemetery into a campground without properly removing most of the graves or recognizing the historic site.
While Waco has worked hard to correct this past mistake, there is only so much that can be done.
Much of the rich cultural heritage and history of Waco’s early Black and Brown inhabitants has simply been erased – the “Many prominent African-Americans” who were buried in First Street Cemetery, “including Knights and Daughters of Tabor, a member of the Mosaic Templars of America, a 19th century Texas legislator, a 19th century member of the Waco City Council, a chairman of the board of Paul Quinn College, one of the original twenty-one settlers of Waco Village, many U.S. veterans and former slaves” are simply gone (at least until DNA tests can confirm the identities of some of the bodies).
This isn’t all the fault of the 1968 decision. It is also because of the overall neglect of the historic site.
Poor records were kept in the late 19th century, and throughout the 20th century, First Street Cemetery was simply not deemed enough of a priority by Waco to be kept in good repair.
Except for a few parts of it.
A Waco Tribune Herald article notes the cemetery is “Waco’s oldest burying ground and contains Confederate soldiers, pioneer politicians, slaves, ministers and workers of Mexican and Chinese descent.”
Can you guess, out of that list, which graves were taken better care of?
I found among the visible tombstones a 1976 memorial stone erected for the Confederate veterans buried in First Street Cemetery and a marker for Confederate veteran Nathaniel Jackson Wollard that had been restored in 1998.
Meanwhile, the descendants of Black slaves who lived and died in Waco still have no marker at their original gravesite.
Historical commemoration says more about the people who erect the statues and the markers than it does about the people commemorated.
In 20th-century Waco, we chose to build a park over the bodies of dead Black Americans while erecting new markers commemorating the white soldiers who fought to preserve slavery.
The bad news is this choice says a lot about the people we were – people complicit in racism. The good news is we can choose, starting right now, to be better.
Just something to think about next time someone complains about taking down a Confederate statue.
Associate dean in the Baylor Graduate School, an associate professor of history at Baylor University and a resident scholar at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion.