It is a burgeoning scandal that is as unfortunate as it was predicted. The City of Austin is facing fresh questions about the handling of renovations to the “Chapel” at Oakwood Cemetery, the city’s oldest official burial ground. Facts have arisen that appear to indicate that the city not only gave the go-ahead to excavate inadvertently discovered (likely African-American) graves using heavy machinery, it also authorized the installation of a sewage line through some of those graves. The excavated human remains have not been reburied, and next of kin has not been identified. Dale Flatt, the co-founder of Save Austin’s Cemeteries and a retired Austin firefighter, explains in these videos below.
Here is the second video. I should note that Flatt’s annoying racial blind spot prevents him from conceding that these people, including several infants, weren’t just “paupers,” but were more than likely also Black. That portion of the cemetery was clearly demarcated as a non-white section. Bioarchaeological evidence, including DNA analysis, can help to answer such questions, but this line of work requires skills, knowledge, and perspective, as most trained African-American archaeologists very much know.
So what are we to make of this mess? As someone who has been involved in similar Lone Star State debacles since my graduate student involvement at Houston’s Allen Parkway Village public housing development in 1996, I am rather disappointed to see such familiar racist disrespect for Black life and death infecting my hometown twenty years later. Moreover I am cognizant that in both instances–Houston in 1996 and Austin in 2017–that it was government that was responsible for these racist lapses in judgment, not a private developer or oil & gas concern. But given that Austin is presently enmeshed in its most recent real estate feeding frenzy, this fiasco was probably always foreseeable. I say as much in the video above.
The draft archaeological report by Hicks & Company (get in touch if you want a copy) makes clear why hand digging was abandoned in favor of backhoe trenching: hand excavation was deemed financially and “temporally incompatible” with the goals of city cemetery administrators and their bosses. In other words, doing this project the right way would have cost too much time and money. Which raises an important question: what would doing this project the right way have entailed?
We Have Been Down This Road Before
The desecration and destruction of African-American burial sites, and the utter lack of effectiveness on the part of the Texas archaeological establishment to do something about it, has now become an institutionalized feature of how not just private developers but municipal governments conceive of “archaeology” when they are confronted by the inadvertent discovery of such burials. The now long list of scandals is a racist blot that should make every archaeologist in the Lone Star State hang their head in shame.
The first thing that should have happened is this: properly qualified and experienced African-American archaeologists should have been consulted and then hired by the city. As at the African Burial Ground in New York City, this was never a cultural resource management project, and “archaeological monitoring” should have never been how this project was conceived. A properly trained archaeological team would have authored a research design that would have demanded “biocultural” research control by the cultural and lineal descendant community and researchers designated by them.
Is there a “how to” document for untrained archaeologists working at African-American sites? Is there a document that can at least furnish some working context? Of course there is, and if you are a regular reader of this page you know that I referenced it at the recent scandal in Sugar Land regarding the 95 graves that were inadvertently discovered by Fort Bend ISD in conjunction with a school construction project. I predicted back in 2005 that graves would likely be uncovered at some point at the site of the former Central State Prison Farm and Labor Camp; sadly I was proven right there as well. In any case, here (yet again) is the cover page for the historic context document that I helped author back in 2013. Sadly, most private sector archaeologists in Texas don’t even know of this document’s existence, and Texas Historical Commission “regulators” aren’t requiring them to follow its advice. Why? Because of property rights.
Truth be told, the lion’s share of the blame for the mismanagement and desecration of these graves can be lain at the feet of one person: former city councillor Ora Houston.
She could have insisted that the exhumation of graves be conducted in keeping with proper African-American archaeological standards. She could have insisted upon African-American research and interpretive control (especially custody and analysis of human remains), a key factor at the African Burial Ground. If she agreed with the recommendation to archaeologically monitor this project (which she shouldn’t), she could have at least insisted upon the hiring of a qualified cultural monitor with “stop work” authority, a common practice in California, Hawai’i, and in other states. Most importantly, she could have worked to galvanize the community, in order to ensure that the financial resources and political will were in place in order to see the project through to satisfactory completion. It would have influenced the city council and the mayor greatly; such political activity was certainly decisive at the African Burial Ground in 1991, and resulted in the removal of the private archaeological firm hired by the GSA from the project, and the engagement of an academic team from Howard University led by noted anthropologist and bio-archaeologist Prof. Michael Blakey.
I consider Ora Houston’s unfortunate and hubristic unwillingness to grasp the true depths and countours of this issue, and her previous lack of political will to properly fight alongside myself and the community at Rosewood Courts and at the Montopolis Negro School, to be the most unfortunate aspect of her political legacy on the dais. As of today, Rosewood Courts is still standing, and the Montopolis Negro School and its cultural landscape have been protected–no thanks to her and her political instincts to “compromise” away the Black past and present. She thought she knew better than the experts; she didn’t.
In a bit of irony, Michael Blakey, the principal investigator of the African Burial Ground, was in Austin in 2016 at the invitation of Six Square, Austin’s African-American Cultural Heritage (but not historic) District for a symposium. As part of the event I was part of a panel discussion about the importance of protecting African-American cemeteries at Huston Tillotson University’s King-Seabrook Chapel. There was general agreement that Black Lives, dead or alive, do indeed matter, that the human right to a decent burial was sacrosanct, and that basic cultural standards and protocols should govern archaeological work at such sites. With all this brainpower at its disposal then, how could city administrators still manage to so thoroughly screw up the Oakwood Chapel renovation? All while claiming that “the community” was “consulted” at every step of the process? Why is the bioarchaeology being done at Texas State University in San Marcos, instead of at laboratories affiliated with Blakey in Washington, D.C. and Virginia? Presumably again because of the aforementioned “temporal inefficiency” issues.
I also have a message for the local racial justice organization du jour the Austin Justice Coalition, which hasn’t exactly properly partnered with older racial justice fighters (such as myself) regarding the historic preservation issue in Austin. It isn’t talked about much, especially in Austin, but the Movement for Black Lives has taken a strong policy position regarding African-American historic preservation and cultural reparations. I quote:
“There are too few acknowledged and preserved sites commemorating Black history. Of the 412 National Park Service sites in the U.S., only 25 (or 6 percent) are specifically devoted to Black history. According to the Institute of Museums and Library Services, there are 35,000 museums in the U.S., but only about 300 (or less than 1 percent) of these are specifically devoted to Black individuals or history. Despite their valuable programming and exhibitions, these organizations do not receive adequate funding from state legislatures or philanthropic organizations.”
If you are in any doubt about the African-American historic preservation situation in Austin, please read some of my earlier blog posts and bring yourself up to speed. The destruction of cultural heritage has always been a handmaiden to displacement.
Austin has a long way to go. It starts with supporting the People’s Plan, which contains targeted historic preservation and environmental protection resolutions I authored or co-authored. It also means combating tokenism and the elevation of shady non-profits who claim to be fighting the man but who in the end in fact support the status quo.
In conclusion, let me say this: I will be bringing this issue before our elected and appointed officials. The city should do the right thing and 1. Move the sewer line, and 2. Conduct proper archaeological research in the Colored section of Oakwood Cemetery, including DNA analysis and the identification (where possible) of lineal and cultural descendants. 3. Finally hire an in-house archaeologist, as other cities have (see some of my previous posts about this).
This unfortunate episode constitutes an important teachable moment. Will city officials embrace the opportunity to do the right thing? Or will the city choose to double and triple down and engage in a government funded political campaign of deflection, diversion, delay, and ad hominem attacks, as the Austin Housing Authority did at Rosewood Courts? Regrettably, in the Austin of 2019-2020, that should not be too difficult of a question to answer.