By Rebecca Flannery
A chain-link fence separates the graves of deceased whites and blacks in Greenwood Cemetery, a reminder of the Jim Crow South and the cemetery’s separatist roots.
This historic cemetery in Waco, however, will soon catch up with the nation’s views on desegregation.
Rusty Black, director of Waco’s parks and recreation department, said the community is rallying major support to remove the fence.
“Ultimately, it’s up to the community to decide the outcome of the fence,” Black said.
The Greenwood Cemetery in East Waco was recognized by the city in 1875 and different groups and associations thereafter purchased plots of land for burials. Annette Jones, assistant city attorney, said in the process of restoring and renovating the cemetery, the city would need to acquire all tracts of land within it.
“The city doesn’t own all the plots of land in the cemetery,” Jones said. “What is generally referred to as ‘Greenwood Cemetery’ is actually a lot of pieces of the land bought and maintained by private owners or associations.”
The two major associations with land acquisition in the cemetery are the People’s Cemetery Association, which oversees the black side, and The East Waco Greenwood Cemetery Association, which maintains the white side.
The People’s Cemetery Association turned over its possession and maintenance of the land to the city in 2007, Black said. The East Waco Greenwood Cemetery Association also voted to turn its possession over to the city this summer.
“When I came to Waco in ’99, this same issue was going on,” Black said. “Then, the city approached the possibility of taking over the cemetery, but the associations didn’t give up their control. Not for racial reasons, but they said they could maintain it.”
Over the years, both associations have experienced a lack of upkeep due to shifts in management. At one time, the white side of the cemetery was in pristine condition when the black side became overrun with weeds and trash, Black said. Later on, the black side became more manicured while the white side became unkempt.
“It really depended on the board of the associations,” Black said. “When each side had a strong board behind it, the cemetery was kept up.”
Now, with several members of the associations reaching old age and no one younger stepping up to replace them, turning over the land to the city is the obvious next step, Jones said.
“Through the years, people in both associations have died,” Jones said. “No one younger is joining these cemetery associations, so the parks department has stepped in and tried to take care of the cemetery.”
Getting in contact with other owners of land in the cemetery could take an extensive amount of time, Jones said. Some owners might have died or simply don’t oversee the land that is legally theirs.
“In that case, we would see if we could identify the unkempt land as abandoned in an attempt to have the city take it over,” Jones said.
The plan is to have the city acquire all the land in the cemetery, place a fortified fence around the perimeter to keep out those who are vandalizing it with discarded beer cans, bottles and syringes. There are also plans to replace a stolen historical marker and remove the fence separating the deceased white and black members, Black said.
The project will not likely be completed until next spring or summer, Black said.
“We want to make sure we’re doing everything legally, and check in with the Texas Historical Commission,” he said. “We want to avoid encroaching on grave sites.”
The cemetery holds white Waco residents, paupers and Civil War veterans on one side, Jones said. On the other side are more than 1,000 black residents, including prominent historical figures like Broadway baritone Jules Bledsoe.
As for greater unification of white citizens and blacks with the removal of the fence, Black said it would be a move in the right direction.
“The bottom line is, it’s the right thing to do,” he said.