The city of Waco is spending an estimated $300,000 for a new steel fence to protect and unite the once-segregated Greenwood Cemetery in East Waco.
But the East Waco councilman who has devoted much of his life to that cemetery complained that the city still isn’t doing enough to maintain it.
Councilman Noah Jackson Jr. said the city has been too slow to build the fence and bring order to Greenwood.
“There’s a lot of unhappy folks,” Jackson said. “My people are buried there. … If you go over there right now, it is a cesspool of nothing.”
The city has gradually taken over maintenance of the city-owned cemetery from volunteers over the last decade and has been mowing it about 20 times a year, about as much as First Street Cemetery, Waco’s oldest public cemetery.
But Jackson said there’s still too much trash on the streets around the cemetery, and he questioned the city’s commitment to cleaning up the area.
Parks planner Tom Balk said legal and historic preservation issues have delayed the fencing project, but it’s on course to be finished within a year. To avoid the possibility of digging postholes into unmarked graves, the city will incorporate what are now public streets into the fenced area.
Those include Earle Avenue and Coffee Street, which runs parallel to the adjacent frontage road for Business 77.
The project also will add arched entryways comparable to other local cemeteries.
“This will protect the site and monuments and delineate the grounds as a united cemetery,” Balk said. “It’s a significant site with artifacts worthy of preservation that right now could be easily damaged.”
At Greenwood, a chain-link fence cuts Waco’s history in half.
The council on Tuesday awarded $73,900 to Pape Dawson Engineers for archaeology and design services for the fencing project, which has to follow strict Texas Historical Commission rules.
Balk said in the next few months, the city will try to solidify its legal claim to the entire cemetery, which has a complicated past.
Greenwood is Waco’s second-oldest public cemetery, established in 1875 to relieve the crowded First Street Cemetery. McLennan County established an adjacent section in 1883, and other families and organizations later created more burying grounds around it.
The cemetery contains the remains of pioneers, Union and Confederate Civil War soldiers and victims of the 1918-1919 flu epidemic, as well as black sportsmen and civic leaders. One is R.L. Smith, who in the 1890s served as Texas’ last black state legislator until the 1960s. Most famous of all is Jules Bledsoe, the opera singer who sang “Old Man River” in the original Broadway production of “Showboat.”
The cemetery was segregated from its beginning, and volunteer groups maintained it. The People’s Cemetery Association tended the black side of Greenwood from 1967 to 2007, when its membership had dwindled to one person — Noah Jackson Jr. That year, the city took over maintenance of the black side.
The East Waco Greenwood Cemetery Association continued to maintain the white side until 2014, when its leaders voted to turn over maintenance to the city. Last summer, the city of Waco took down the chainlink fence that had separated the white and black sections and had made it impossible for visitors and crews to pass directly from one side to the other. Crews left the fence posts standing to avoid disturbing the burial grounds until the Texas Historical Commission approves further action.
Balk called the fence a “representation of a segregated past the city doesn’t need to carry forward.”
Jackson’s predecessor and friend, Wilbert Austin Jr., supported taking the fence down, saying in a 2014 interview, “That should have been taken out 75 years ago.”
But Jackson on Tuesday said that taking down the fence was premature, and the city should have put up the perimeter fence first.
“They took the fence down too early and disturbed a lot of people,” Jackson said. “It was a good cemetery and well-kept, but we screwed it up because of discrimination or prejudice or something. … The white side was well-kept and manicured. They took the fence down between the two and exposed the white cemetery to the same thing as the black cemetery.”
A quarter-mile of chain-link fence that has long divided Greenwood Cemetery into black and white will soon be history.
City Manager Dale Fisseler said the city staff has been trying to do the project right and not repeat the mistake of a decade ago, when the city accidentally unearthed bodies in unmarked graves at First Street Cemetery.
“While there might have been delays, those aren’t Tom’s fault,” Fisseler said. “Tom has been working on this diligently. It sounded like an easy project but it wasn’t. I’m frustrated with it, too. But once we learned what happened on the First Street Cemetery, we don’t want to do that again.”
Fisseler agreed to sit down with Jackson and parks staff to discuss his concerns about Greenwood Cemetery.
In other business Tuesday, the council discussed a public art proposal called “Spirit Animals,” which would place stylized sculptures of zoo animals near the Pecan Bottoms entrance to Cameron Park Zoo.
Fiona Bond, executive director of Creative Waco, said an anonymous donor has agreed to fund the sculptures as a way to bring more visibility to the zoo. She proposed that Creative Waco, as Waco’s official arts agency, would put out a request for proposals over the next month and choose an artist and project by December, subject to council approval.
Bond said panels made up of arts, parks, zoo and city officials will review the proposals, looking at functionality, capability and originality.
“We want something that is groundbreaking, something beyond what the artist or the community have challenged themselves to do before,” she said. “We’re looking for something that transforms a community or a place.”
Councilman John Kinnaird, who served on the task force for the Waco cultural district, said the project is exciting.
“The focus on public art is important and vital,” Kinnaird said. “It’s a quality of life issue.”