Historic Black cemetery in East Austin braces for encroaching development
Nearly 30 years ago, Sue Spears noticed kids from Sims Elementary were traipsing through an overgrown field in East Austin to reach neighboring houses. She was concerned for their safety and curious about the neglected property.
After some research, Spears discovered what and who was hidden beneath the six acres of weeds and littered grounds on Springdale Road: a neglected cemetery holding the legacy of more than 500 Black lives.
“I grew up in East Austin, not far from here. And my whole family— my brothers and sisters — we attended the school across the street,” Spears said. “And I didn't even know about this cemetery until I got involved in community issues, until I got involved with the PTA.”
She soon began organizing cemetery cleanups, a mighty feat for a long-neglected property. At first, the cleanups were brutal. Community members used chainsaws to hack through weeds and overgrown grass. They removed abandoned vehicles and litter. Clearing the property took a lot of people-power and several years work.
“Once I learned that there were actually people here that had been former slaves and who had actually given some of their slave narratives and told their stories, that just kind of touched me,” Spears said. “For people of this community who were marginalized in life, they should have some respect in death."
Bethany Cemetery, like some other cemeteries in Austin, is not part of the City of Austin Cemetery Operations, which offers maintenance through the Parks Department. So, care of the cemetery is dependent on private funds and community efforts.
Spears leads the efforts to this day through the Bethany Cemetery Association. But what began for her as land restoration work has evolved into a round-the-clock job of advocacy and preservation as massive housing developments surrounding the cemetery move forward.
A legacy of Black lives
Bethany Cemetery was founded in the late 1800s when the segregated section of the nearby city-run Oakwood Cemetery no longer offered burial space for Black residents. The oldest recorded Bethany burial is an infant, Hellen Moore, in 1879. Hundreds more burials followed, and for some people, the gravestones may be the only records of their lives.
Keith Crippen, a longtime volunteer at Bethany and a member of the local chapter of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, recovers and restores damaged headstones.
“With a lot of these [headstones], you can't even find any records on the people,” he said. “Especially the ones before emancipation, they weren't even a part of the census. They weren’t considered citizens.”
Crippen spends at least several days a month at the cemetery, often several days a week. By restoring the headstones — which he says is a meticulous process — he feels he can help keep alive the stories of the people buried at Bethany.
On a recent tour, Crippen showed me gravestones of Union Civil War soldiers, Buffalo Soldiers and several other people buried there, including Easter (or Esther) Pease, a woman enslaved by former Texas Gov. E.M. Pease, for whom Pease Park and Pease Elementary were named.
Crippen often joins Spears when she offers free tours of the cemetery.
“The people who are actually buried here, they are the earliest African Americans that settled this community,” Spears said. “A lot of them were just ordinary people who, after slavery, got out and did the best they can to build families,” Spears said. “They were barbers. They were school teachers. They owned little shops. They actually were instrumental in forming this community."
Spears said she hopes one day the stories and slave narratives of Bethany’s residents can be incorporated into the cemetery as part of a self-guided tour. She also hopes for more investment to make the cemetery a destination for people to explore Austin's African-American and East Austin history.
Spears said she’s applying for a City of AustinHeritage Preservation Grant which would promote tourism and provide funds for marketing and planning projects.
“Every stone has a story,” Spears said. “And every stone represents somebody's family, somebody's mother, father, daughter, you know, child, and they all have stories to tell.”
Spears says her preservation efforts have ramped up recently; she's working 60-plus hours a week attending meetings, organizing cleanups and following plans for development near the cemetery.
Spears said she wants to ensure the projects do not build over any potentially unmarked graves — an issue that older cemeteries face.
According to Jenny McWilliams with the Texas Historical Commission’s Cemetery Preservation Program, it’s not uncommon for unmarked graves to exist outside of an older cemetery’s designated perimeter.
“Any family member who can't afford a marker is not going to mark the grave,” she said. “And the earlier the cemetery is, the more likely there could be unmarked graves.”
McWilliams said it's up to the developer to confirm there are no unmarked graves on the property. If it does find an unmarked grave, the burial site would be protected by the Texas Health and Safety Code, which states a cemetery can be as small as a single grave and cannot be used for any other purpose.
Leah Bojo, who represents the apartment developer Heartwood Real Estate Group, said via email that the developer conducted a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) study concluding there is “not reason to think that graves are across the property line” of the cemetery. Bojo also said Heartwood has agreed to have a historic archeologist present on-site during the construction.
Spears said she's looking into getting an independent GPR study that assesses the ground at least 25 feet from the cemetery's property line to confirm there are no unmarked graves — rather than depending on the developer's report.
If an unmarked grave is found beyond the existing property line, the Texas Health and Safety Code requires any construction that would disturb the remains to immediately stop. Bojo says if a grave is discovered, the developer will comply and cooperate with local and state authorities.
Construction on the new apartments is expected to begin next year.
In the meantime, Spears said she hopes that through continued educational tours, advocacy and community engagement, she can ensure Bethany’s legacy endures — even as the neighborhood around it changes.