The team of archaeologists from the University of Texas at San Antonio had spent only a few hours sifting through piles of dirt in a vacant property in northeast Bexar County when they came across some remnants of the past.
Two pieces of coffin hardware – small metal decorations that once adorned a casket – had immediately turned up in the abandoned cemetery on a property at Nacogdoches Road and Loop 1604. One looked like a buckle, another like it was the top part of a cross. The cross appeared to have a tiny flower as a decoration.
The cemetery is the resting place of the ancestors of some of Bexar County’s black farm and ranch families, according to research by Everett Fly, a local architect, landscape architect, and historian who’s also the driving force behind the San Antonio African American Community Archive and Museum.
Philis Barragan-Goetz, a Texas A&M University-San Antonio assistant professor of history, and her undergraduate student, Moriah Torres, assisted Fly with the historical research.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, black landowners worked huge farms and ranches in the area, collectively owning more than 1,200 acres between Cibolo Creek and what is now Thousand Oaks Road, Fly said. Some of them worshipped at an African Methodist Episcopal church that once stood across Loop 1604 from the cemetery, now the site of a Jim’s Restaurant.
Beginning in 1986, the site’s former property owners moved many of the bodies in the then-abandoned cemetery to nearby Holy Cross Cemetery, where they were placed in a single grave, according to an affidavit Fly uncovered in his research.
Through interviews with descendants and documents from public archives, Fly uncovered many of the names of people buried at the cemetery. Some were part of the Winters-Jackson family, whose members provided family records and interviews, Fly said.
In April, the Rivard Report toured a dig site at the former cemetery to see the UTSA archeologists at work sifting through the top layer of soil on the property now owned by Fasken Oil and Ranch, which gave them access to the site and cleared away brush.
“It’s bigger than it looks,” Shawn Marceaux, director of UTSA’s Center for Archaeological Research, said of the cemetery, now hidden from outside view by a group of trees at the top of a hill.
Such a fate is not unique for black cemeteries in Texas and other parts of the country. Historical researchers like Fly have been steadily uncovering links to the community’s past that have been forgotten, ignored, and erased.
Statewide, Texas has roughly 2,000 cemeteries designated as historic, said Jennifer McWilliams, cemetery preservation program coordinator for the Texas Historical Commission.
“We know there are another several thousand cemeteries out there,” she said.
It took efforts from multiple entities in San Antonio to begin uncovering the secrets of this one.
Aside from UTSA and Texas A&M, funding for background research came from the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation and the San Antonio Conservation Society, Fly said. Gibbons Surveying and Mapping provided a free boundary and topographic survey of the property, and Region 1 of the Texas Nursery and Landscape Association provided a backhoe and operator to help with the dig.
Fly said City archaeologist Kay Hindes also advised on the City’s historic preservation ordinances. These, along with state laws, are meant to stop cemeteries from being erased and having access cut off in the future.
“San Antonio promotes itself as being a diverse community,” Fly said, standing at the grave marker at Holy Cross Cemetery. “In the next 300 years, these things should happen less frequently.”