Oakwood cemetery plagued with vandalism, rich with local history

Grave markers in the Oakwood Cemetery on La Salle Avenue were vandalized on January 26th, 2013. Photographs of the markers were taken on January 28th, 2013. Travis Taylor | Lariat Photographer

Grave markers in the Oakwood Cemetery on La Salle Avenue were vandalized on January 26th, 2013.  Photographs of the markers were taken on January 28th, 2013.   Travis Taylor | Lariat Photographer
Grave markers in the Oakwood Cemetery on La Salle Avenue were vandalized on January 26th, 2013. Photographs of the markers were taken on January 28th, 2013.
Travis Taylor | Lariat Photographer
By Rebecca Fiedler

On La Salle Avenue, a Baylor student can easily find a place to get their car repaired or stop off at the local Dairy Queen for ice cream. Just out of sight, however, on a quick turn off of La Salle down South Fifth Street, a wealth of Waco, Baylor and Texas history lies under an expanse of oak trees. Oakwood Cemetery has been the final resting place for prominent figures in local and state history for decades and has weathered the test of time.

Some might not comprehend the value that headstones and monuments have, but the collaborative efforts of donors to fund the reward for information about the recent vandalisms alludes to a level of importance Oakwood holds in the Waco community. Oakwood was established in 1878.

Three Texas governors are buried in Oakwood: Richard Coke, L.S. “Sul” Ross and Pat M. Neff. Six Baylor presidents were laid to rest there, said Don Davis, director of the Historic Waco Foundation. According to files from the Waco-McLennan County Library’s Genealogy Library list the Oakwood graves of Neil McLennan, the Scotsman for whom McLennan County was named and the first Anglo man in Waco; John Wesley Downs, who founded Waco’s first daily newspaper, the Waco Examiner; and James B. Baker, mayor of Waco and Texas cavalryman in the Civil War.

Richard Coke, a Civil War captain, Texas Supreme Court judge, governor of Texas, U.S. senator and a driving force in post-Civil War Reconstruction in Texas, rests in Oakwood. His statue faces the statue of his best friend Dr. David Wallace; his “friend through eternity,” the Genealogy Library’s files read.

A figure infamous to Baylor history lies in Oakwood, too. According to the Handbook of Texas Online, William Cowper Brann, a journalist in the 1800s, wrote attacks against institutions he believed to be hypocritical or over-sanctimonious. Brann verbally attacked Baylor, and when he didn’t proceed to pack up his bitterness and leave Waco, he was kidnapped and taken to Baylor campus. After, he was beaten by a local Baptist judge and two men. Brann was killed in a shoot-out with an angry Baylor supporter, Tom E. Davis, both men died by each other’s hand. Brann’s body now rests under a large monument at Oakwood.

David Evans, superintendent and executive secretary of the Oakwood Cemetery Association, said Oakwood has significance to the history of Waco.

“Traditionally, we didn’t have the records like we do now,” Evans said. “You go to Boston and look at the old cemeteries there, and virtually that is the record.”

Oakwood was established when Waco really began to boom in growth, said Dr. Michael Parrish, Baylor professor of history. Waco was one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States in the late 1800s, he said. Economic Waco became a crossroads with that and with railroads. Because of the railroads and construction of the Waco Suspension Bridge, which allowed the Chisholm Trail to pass through Waco, the beginning and growth of Oakwood during late 1800s and early 1900s Waco’s status as the center of the cotton trade reflected the growth of Waco as a major urban center of the Southwest, Parrish said.

“These famous people reflect the kind of triumph of Waco as a major urban center in Texas, and indeed, the entire Southwest during the late 19th and early 20th century,” Parrish said.
Cemeteries are personal places for people who have ancestors buried there, Parrish said. Parrish also said reading history in a book and obtaining information from a grave is not the same thing.

“Books are important, but it’s not the same as the sense of place that you get when you visit a historic site — a historic landmark, house, battlefield – a place where something important and meaningful happened,” Parrish said. “It’s one thing to talk about and read about William Cowper Brann. It’s one thing to talk about and read about Richard Coke and Rufus Burleson and Dorothy Scarborough. But when you actually go to their gravesites and see their gravestones, it’s transcendent. By that I mean it’s spiritual, and it touches us – that experience of being in the presence of their final resting place is a transcendent moment.”

No matter the value of a grave, Davis said, vandalism is not unusual for cemeteries. Two months ago, between the evening of Jan. 25 and the morning of Jan. 26, up to $200,000 worth of damage was done to graves in Oakwood; it was the fifth reported vandalism to the cemetery in the past 100 years. Parrish is hopeful there is a silver lining to be seen. Sometimes it takes something bad happening to motivate people to protect, he said.

“Maybe something good will come from it,” said Parrish. “You know, that’s the way that life should work.”

Evans says a reward is being offered for any information leading to the arrest of those charged with this vandalism. The reward stands at around $8,000. The reward is a result of donations from the Waco community, including local businesses, individuals and the Waco Crime Stoppers.

Holly Browning, curator for the Historic Waco Foundation, said vandalism of graveyards is not necessarily for gain unless it’s self-gratification. Boredom is a motive, though it can be done out of anger or a lack of respect. Davis believes the vandalism done most recently to Oakwood was done to monuments at random.

In this most recent vandalism of Oakwood, markers were knocked over and broken, two columns were toppled and angels were capsized, The angel statue at famous figure Madison Cooper’s grave had its hands broken off, Davis said.

“It’s very rare for angels to still have their hands because they’re so delicate,” Browning said.

More than a dozen security cameras have been installed around the cemetery as a result. Browning called the crime the “desecration of your loved one’s final resting place.” She said graves are sacred ground to the family members and community, because that’s where the town’s historic figures lie.

“So to mess with them, you’re messing with the community,” she said.