A quarter-mile of chain-link fence that has long divided Greenwood Cemetery into black and white will soon be history.

The city of Waco, which owns most of the cemetery, has won the blessing of the Texas Historical Commission to remove the chain link beginning early next week.

The cemetery at Business 77 and Price Street has been segregated since the city established it in 1875 as Waco’s second public cemetery.

It is the final resting place of thousands of people — Confederate and Union soldiers, pioneers, black college presidents, World War I influenza victims, Negro League baseball star Andrew Cooper and the famous Broadway baritone Jules Bledsoe.

The city took over mowing the black side of the cemetery in 2007 and the white side in 2014, after cemetery associations in charge of the sections dwindled. Still, the fence remained as a relic of the Jim Crow era. The fence is also a barrier to visitors and to mowing crews, which have to exit onto surrounding streets to get to the other side of the cemetery.

“Obviously, part of the issue is the segregation of blacks and whites,” said parks and recreation director John Williams, who is African-American. “Taking down the fence will show the progress we have made as a society.”

For now, only the galvanized-steel chain-link “fabric” will be removed and sent for recycling. Removing the posts will be a separate phase that will require the services of an archaeologist to avoid the accidental disturbance of unmarked graves. Parks officials ultimately hope to enclose the entire cemetery in a steel-tube fence, possibly with an attractive entry gate and signage informing visitors of the cemetery’s history.

“We’d like something nicer than chain link,” said city park planner Tom Balk, who said the entire budget for the project is $300,000.

Councilman Wilbert Austin, who represents East Waco, said taking down the chain link is a good first step. He said the fence is a reminder of a time when most local cemeteries would not take black people.

“It’s a great thing to happen,” he said. “It should have been taken down 40 years ago.”

As a minister, Austin has officiated at graveside services at the cemetery. He remembers attending his grandparents’ funerals there nearly 60 years ago, though the wooden markers are now long gone.

“Back then, we poor people couldn’t afford those headstones,” said Austin, who is 75.

Greenwood Cemetery deed map

Deed records show that parts of Greenwood Cemetery are owned by private parties. It’s possible that the city could assume full ownership after declaring those sections abandoned. Click to enlarge.

Assistant City Attorney Annette Jones, who has been researching the cemetery for several years, said ownership of the cemetery is complicated. The city started the cemetery, but the county still owns a section that it created as a pauper cemetery in 1883. Other sections are privately owned but have not been maintained by the owners for decades.

Jones said state law outlines a process for the city to take control of “abandoned” cemeteries, a process that would involve public notices and public hearings.

Possible remains

A bigger concern when attempting to fence off the entire cemetery is the possibility of finding unmarked graves along the fenceline, Jones said. The city encountered hundreds of human remains in 2007 when digging a utility trench through an unmarked section of Fort Fisher Park that was originally part of First Street Cemetery. It cost about $2 million to relocate the remains, mostly because of extensive archaeology work.

“If you’re digging holes in the ground, you could have the same problems as at First Street,” Jones said. “We don’t know where all the burials occurred. We’re not absolutely sure of the extent of the cemetery.”

Williams, the parks director, said nothing will be disturbed without the consultation of an archaeologist and Texas Historical Foundation officials.

He said that once the interior fence is removed, the parks department might turn it into a mounded walking trail that will delineate the historic racial division without fencing anyone out.

“I think for posterity’s sake, we’d want a marker saying, ‘This was an old African-American cemetery,’ ” he said.

Recommended for you