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For Some, the Fight to Preserve East Austin History Extends Underground

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Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT
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As a development in East Austin encroaches on the historic Burditt Prairie Cemetery, descendents and activists argue developer Oden Hughes hasn't done enough to preserve some graves.

Rapid development is just about everywhere in Austin. Some of that development has brought up environmental questions, or concerns over the increased traffic they could bring. But one developer has a fight on their hands that's not about what’s happening above ground, but below.

At the small, overgrown Burditt Prairie Cemetery in Montopolis, headstones peek out from the grass and weeds. Adama Brown has been visiting there since she was a kid. A lot of her family members are buried there.

“I’m a sixth-generation Texan.”

Burditt Prairie Cemetery is named for a family that owned a cotton plantation there.

“My family members, ancestors, were slaves who worked the Burditt plantation, and ended up taking the Burditt name,” Brown said.

This was originally a cemetery for enslaved people, like Brown’s ancestors. Later the area became a Freedom Colony – a self-sufficient community created by emancipated slaves. And Burditt Prairie was the community’s cemetery.

It’s still being used today, although upkeep is questionable. 

Brown’s grandfather’s grave lies somewhere in the cemetery's deep grass.

Like a lot of graves there, it’s unmarked, and after searching for a while Brown gave up – the grass was just too high for her to recognize the spot.

Brown is part of the cemetery association that looks after Burditt Prairie. The group is concerned, because a developer is planning to build next to the cemetery, where there could be several unmarked graves.

Archeologist Fred McGhee is also a part of the cemetery association. As he worked his way through the thigh-high weeds in the grounds behind the cemetery – the developer’s land – with his “big machete,” he pointed out a big mound in the ground.

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Credit KUT News

It’s maybe five feet high, and, he said, it has “what looks like about an 8-foot cross sitting right on top of the hill. Now you don’t have to be an expert in mound-building to know that that looks pretty interesting.”

Then he spotted something else.

“Right by this tree is a piece of limestone that looks conspicuously like a portion of a headstone. And there’s various indentations in this portion of their lot that look like grave shafts. You need to find out what that is.”

With old cemeteries like this one, which dates back to the 1850s, archaeologists say boundaries can be elusive, and unmarked graves are common – some have been found as far as 200 feet outside cemetery bounds. 

But the developer isn’t required by law to do any surveying before starting construction. It’s only if they actually unearth a grave that rules kick in.

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Credit KUT News

Mac McElwrath is the managing director on the development side of Oden Hughes.

McElwrath said the firm did hire an archaeologist, who did archival research and a surface survey of the grounds around the cemetery.

They took note of anything that might indicate a grave – like the giant cross, the limestone pieces and out-of-place plants, like irises. 

"It almost feels like even in death, we're displaced."

Most of what they found fell within 75-feet of the cemetery, but one stone fragment engraved with the date 1863 was more than 100 feet away.

“So what we had decided to do is create a self-imposed minimum buffer of 120 feet from the cemetery, whereby no development whatsoever will take place,” he said.

This means they’ll be able to fit fewer apartments on the land. McElwrath said that while it will cost his company, they’re happy to do it.

“This is somewhat uncharted territory for us. But all we can do is act with an abundance of caution and make sure that we meet or exceed the recommendations of the archaeologists. And that's what we're doing,” he said.

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Credit KUT News

But McGhee doesn’t buy it.

“The 120-foot buffer seems like a nice gesture on the part of the developer, but his archaeologist hasn’t done any excavation," he said. "It’s more or less a guess.”

And Austin archaeologist Rachel Feit said you’ve got to do more than guess.

“It sounds to me like the developer did make a good faith effort, but sometimes you need to do more. And this sounds like one of those cases.”

Feit said that because the descendants of those buried at Burditt are concerned, more work is warranted. Especially considering the precedent here.

“It’s been well documented that this occurs with regularity, and it’s also well documented that historically especially cemeteries from minority and disenfranchised communities, poor communities, do get lost and then paved over with a housing project or a road or a shopping mall,” Feit said.

The developer doesn’t plan to do any more surveying.

For Adama Brown, the situation is especially painful in the context of the changes happening all around East Austin, where she grew up.

“It almost feels like even in death, we’re displaced.”

She’s hoping the developer will listen.

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