Oakwood Cemetery, as Austin’s oldest city burial ground dating back to 1839 and growing through the years to its current size of approximately 40 acres at 1601 Navasota Street, is the resting place for generations of the city’s history — but the memories buried here, reflecting the formerly segregated surrounding neighborhoods of East Austin, were unequally distributed, some forgotten for more than a century. The city’s 2016 renovation of the Oakwood Cemetery Chapel, originally built with a design from Austin architect Charles Page in 1914, discovered that the chapel sat on top of a number of unidentified graves in the “Colored Grounds” of the cemetery.
The reckoning over this historical injustice involved the exhumation, DNA testing and eventual reinterment of previously unidentified bodies, with a final archaeological report expected in 2024. As part of the process, the Oakwood Chapel, which now operates as a visitor’s center through the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, received a 2021 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to create a digital 3D model of the cemetery’s three acres of “Historic Colored Grounds” — an unmapped section containing the burial sites of thousands.
Over 2,700 African Americans are buried in this section. There are hundreds of Mexican Americans and European Americans buried here as well. As we have researched records, we are finding more people listed in the burial records in the “Colored Grounds” . . . This includes Mahala Murchison, the earliest known person to be brought into Austin enslaved; Reverend C. L. Madison who was a pastor at Wesley Chapel; and Thomas Hill, a stone mason who prospered in life.
— Oakwood Cemetery Chapel
As part of their research, the Chapel’s staff and collaborating researchers have released To Emancipate, a digital exhibit sharing stories of the African Americans buried at Oakwood Cemetery, including the final resting places of enslaved people first brought to the city in the 1830s.
While the exhibit contains a number of fascinating records — including stories, photographs, and even family recipes — for us, the most striking feature of the project is its virtual tour of Oakwood’s historic old grounds, including a full interior walkthrough of the now-restored Oakwood Chapel. These 3D tours are even compatible with virtual reality devices, if you’re so inclined, but we’d still recommend an in-person visit when you have the chance. While the history of Oakwood isn’t always uplifting stuff, it’s a critical piece of this city’s past context that ought to inform our future — since there’s a good chance more stories just like these remain buried.