After at least seven years of intense study by historians, archaeologists and others, a small San Antonio cemetery that dates to the late 19th century has been recognized as a cultural heritage district.

The Historic and Design Review Commission on Wednesday approved the designation for the Hockley-Clay Cemetery, located in Northeast San Antonio, at the request of the city’s Office of Historic Preservation.  

Cultural heritage recognition is intended for places and things that hold historic or cultural value to the community, according to documents prepared by the Office of Historic Preservation. The cemetery is only the third site in San Antonio to receive such recognition. The first site in San Antonio to be named a Cultural Heritage District was Jefferson Heights in 2005, and the Historic Highway 90 Corridor was recognized in 2018.

The designation for the Hockley-Clay Cemetery recognizes the property as a distinct aspect of the city and a tangible reminder of the city’s culture and heritage.

For Velmil Clay, it’s a liberation of his family’s heritage. 

Established in the 1870s, the cemetery is considered one of the last original components of a historic Black settlement in San Antonio and a lasting remnant of Black settlements in Bexar County going back a century. 

The burial ground is a 1.26-acre parcel carved out of 57 acres owned by Jane Warren, who was born into slavery in 1825 in Alabama. It is located near Uhr Lane in Northeast San Antonio, now the Northern Hills subdivision.

Warren, a matriarch of the Hockley-Freeman-Clay family, dedicated this part of her land “to be used as a burying ground and graveyard and a road leading to same,” according to historic documents. Records show burials there as early as 1908 and descendants recall interments at the family cemetery in the 1970s.

Clay, who is 77, has three brothers, an uncle and great-uncle buried there. But he never visited their graves. A childhood memory kept him away. “I had a cousin who called it a graveyard,” he said. “So I wasn’t too happy to go where the dead people live.”

The last person he remembers being buried there was his dad. 

In recent years, the cemetery became buried itself, under the weight of time and neglect. That is until an area homeowner became curious about the mysterious sliver of unkempt property surrounded on all sides by homes built in the 1980s and the athletic fields of Northern Hills Elementary School. 

Michael Wright’s fact-finding mission led him to David Carlson, an archivist with the Bexar County Spanish Archives, who helped him piece together historic deeds and other documents. Wright then met with architect Everett Fly, a founder of the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum. 

“It was pretty obvious to me that it was an important historic site,” Fly said of that first conversation with Wright. “He had done enough research … to indicate that the families still own that land and never sold it to the developer. 

“So it was not just a designation issue for me, it was like a civil rights issue — for them to be able to retain custody of property that they actually paid money for.”

Clay’s grandmother, Easter Jane Hockley Clay (1880-1982), had lived on the land until it was sold in 1975, all except for the cemetery. 

Warren’s descendants retained ownership of the cemetery parcel but had not maintained it because they feared how improvements would affect their property taxes. Fly made them aware that no cemetery in Texas is subject to property tax and helped them correct nonpayment issues with the county tax assessor’s office. 

Brothers Zelder and Vemil Clay.
Brothers Zelder, left, and Vemil Clay at the cemetery. Credit: Courtesy / Everett Fly

With that obstacle overcome, the family began to trust Fly and open up. “They said that they never thought they’d be able to get it back,” Fly said. 

But there were other problems as well. Neighboring property owners living in a subdivision of single-family homes had unknowingly encroached on the cemetery, installing fences and gates that limited access. 

Clay remembers attending funerals at the cemetery as a child and recalls seeing headstones, including that of the great-uncle. Over time, the cemetery was vandalized and overgrown, and the headstones are no longer in place. 

But Clay knows the exact plot where his great-uncle was buried, a part of the cemetery that had been encroached upon, he said. 

“My family actually dug the graves and covered the graves up,” Clay said. “After the services were over with my uncle, we … pulled the ties off, pulled the suit-coat off, and grabbed the shovels and commenced shoveling the dirt.”

While fragments of the burial markers and other materials have been found by a UTSA Center for Archaeological Research team working on the site, another group from Texas A&M University using ground-penetrating radar scans has not definitively shown where human remains exist in the cemetery. 

Yet noticeable anomalies they found in the soil strongly suggest burials occurred there, Fly said of the study.

Today, the cemetery is free of brush and debris. A surveyor donated his services to solve the encroachment issues and Fly used his professional contacts in landscape architecture to cover the cost of repositioning the backyard fences and returned about 6,000 square feet to the cemetery property. 

Fly said he couldn’t sit by and watch the family lose the property nor could he watch as African American history in San Antonio was forgotten. “If we don’t do it, we’re going to continue to lose these resources and we’ll never be able to recover them,” he said.  

The cultural heritage recognition is a step toward achieving a Historic Texas Cemetery designation from the Texas Historical Commission.

As owners of the land, the Hockley-Clay family descendants have said they support the effort to see the cemetery protected as a historic site, which is a requirement of the state designation. Fly said they plan to set up a property trust to fund ongoing maintenance of the cemetery.

“It’s a lot of history out there,” Clay said proudly. “It’s a lot of history in the area.”

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.