The city plans to exhume and rebury human remains found last year by a construction crew working at Oakwood Cemetery in East Austin.
Construction was halted after the remains and other artifacts were found buried beneath the chapel on the historic property. Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department, which manages Oakwood and other city-owned cemeteries, hosted two public meetings to decide how best to proceed with the project while restoring dignity to the gravesite.
There was no clear consensus among residents. Some said the bodies in the 25 graves thought to be underneath the chapel should be reburied elsewhere. Others said they should stay, and the chapel should be moved.
After much discussion, the City of Austin decided that relocating the chapel was not a viable option and issued a plan to rebury the bodies. Workers won’t be able to remove all of them, though.
“There are some that are located in some very difficult areas directly underneath the structure of the building," said Kevin Johnson with Austin's Parks and Recreation Department. Johnson serves as project manager for the chapel restoration. "So to exhume those would not be possible, but our solution and our recommendation is to remove all the burials that we can safely recover."
Kim McKnight with the Parks Department said the recommendation to exhume the bodies was based partially on precedent from other cities.
“We do know that this has happened all over the country,” she said. “We are doing everything we can to understand what happened here and provide the community with as much information as we have.”
Speaking at a press conference in March, Council Member Ora Houston questioned whether the chapel was knowingly built on top of a burial ground for people of color.
“My heart stopped when I heard that in 1914, a chapel was built on top of graves," she said. "Because I’m sure at that point, people knew that there were graves in that particular section of the cemetery, and so the lack of humanity hit me."
McKnight said we may never know the context of the chapel construction. Records from that time are lacking, but she sees the restoration project as an opportunity to record that history for future generations. Archaeologists plan to study the remains to try to determine their age, sex and anything else notable about the people buried there. For now, construction of the chapel remains on hold.