The committee tasked with planning the reburial of some 300 human remains unearthed from the old First Street Cemetery are hoping to enlist DNA technology in a quest to identify them.
The First Street Cemetery Memorial Advisory Committee has asked Baylor University forensic anthropologist Lori Baker to extract bone samples from each set of remains before the reburial, which is expected in 2015.
The public will have a chance to weigh in on the reburial process at a public meeting the committee is holding at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Quinn Campus Multipurpose Center, 1020 Elm Ave.
The city of Waco discovered the unmarked graves during a construction project behind the Texas Rangers Museum in 2007 and determined they were part of the city’s historic First Street Cemetery, established in 1852.
The city has spent more than $2 million on archaeological work to exhume, analyze, document and store the remains under an agreement with the Texas Historical Commission.
But so far, none of the remains has been identified.
So the committee this spring turned to Baker, who is known nationally for her work in mitochondrial DNA testing on subjects ranging from prehistoric Americans to migrants who perished in the Southwest desert.
Baker volunteered to collect bone samples that ultimately could be analyzed to establish kinship with living descendants or with other family members in the cemetery.
The committee will have to get permission from the state and Baylor to transfer the remains to Baker. For now, funding is not available for the DNA analysis itself, which costs more than $3,000 per sample, city officials said.
But committee members saw this as the last chance to collect genetic material that may prove useful to those who think they have ancestors buried at First Street Cemetery and are willing to submit a cheek swab for DNA testing for comparison.
“The benefit is possibly being able to identify the remains,” said John Wilson, committee chairman and director of Baylor’s Texas Collection. “In a way, it’s unprecedented to find this many remains from that time period together and to be able to study a variety of things.”
Wilson said the committee is trying to do its best to honor the dead and “set things right” after the graves were disturbed.
“It’s not one of those tasks anyone on the committee would ask for, but it’s one that’s important to the community to make certain that we pay proper respect,” he said. “We want to make sure everyone whose remains were disturbed are reburied properly.”
The city of Waco got a court order in the late 1960s to relocate graves before creating Fort Fisher Park and the Texas Ranger Museum on the site of the overgrown cemetery.
Headstones from around the cemetery were moved to a small area along University Parks Drive designated as First Street Cemetery, but there is little evidence of bodies being moved. City officials say thousands of unmarked graves likely remain in the area that supposedly was cleared.
In 2006, the city of Waco started work on a Texas Rangers Company F headquarters and education center in the middle of the old cemetery after paying for limited archaeological work in the footprint of the building.
But in 2007, contractors trenching for a sewer line discovered human remains, and work halted until the Texas Historical Commission agreed to a plan to exhume and repatriate the graves.
The remains that were exhumed have been stored at the Ranger museum in boxes, and they will be transferred to the city’s Rosemound Cemetery, where they will be memorialized.
Assistant City Attorney Annette Jones said the city and its advisory committee are looking for public input on how to memorialize the dead, what kind of burial boxes to use and other details. The city plans to make the information on the burials available at local public libraries.
T. Bradford Willis, a Waco dentist who has compiled biographies of Wacoans buried at First Street Cemetery, was critical of the city’s handling of the graves in 2007 and 2008.
He said he particularly was offended by city officials’ description of the lower area of the cemetery where the graves were found as an “informal burial ground” for paupers. He said he has documented that many important white and black community leaders were buried in that section of the cemetery.
He said he wants to make sure that any memorials for the relocated graves state that they were found within the official confines of First Street Cemetery.
Willis said he is pleased with the steps the city has taken to re-establish the area as a formal cemetery, and he especially likes the idea of collecting DNA samples for future study.
“I think these are all positive things to come out of this,” he said.
If you go
What: Public meeting on reburial process for First Street Cemetery remains
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday
Where: City of Waco Multipurpose Center, 1020 Elm Ave.
On the agenda: The First Street Cemetery Memorial Advisory Committee seeks input on reburying and memorializing some 300 remains exhumed from behind the Texas Ranger Museum. Public comments can also be sent to the Waco City Secretary’s Office, 300 Austin Ave., Waco, TX 76701 by July 11 or submitted online by visiting www.waco-texas.com/publicnotices.asp.