Unearthing the past
Rice group plots historical Houston graveyard
By HEATHER MCLEAN WIEDERHOEFT
Special to the Rice News
In Houston’s earliest days, a cotton plantation stood where modern-day Lockwood Drive and Market Street intersect. In the late 1800s, acreage from this plantation was converted into one of the city’s first Negro cemeteries. Named Evergreen Negro Cemetery, this land served as a final resting place for former slaves, Buffalo Soldiers and World War I veterans until the 1940s.
As Houston grew, so too did many of its roadways. When the city decided to expand Lockwood Drive in 1960, hundreds of graves at Evergreen were moved to three other Houston cemeteries, but no records exist for the graves that were not moved.
The graves that remained at Evergreen became a neglected part of Houston’s history. Weeds took over the cemetery and many gravestones deteriorated or were vandalized. Evergreen resembled an abandoned lot more than a cemetery.
During the last several years, interest in this cemetery has been renewed as several groups took on the task of cleaning up the property. But how many graves remain at Evergreen?
Rice University students in a continuing education class and an Earth science course have set out to solve this puzzle. Thanks to a project headed by Alison Henning, lecturer in Earth science and associate director of the School Science and Tech Project, and Dale Sawyer, professor of Earth science, Houstonians will soon have a better understanding of what lies beneath Evergreen Cemetery.
Henning has been involved with instructing outreach courses for teachers since she was a graduate student and now heads up this area for Earth science. The department received a Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board Teacher Quality Grant that has funded a series of classes geared toward middle school teachers interested in Earth science.
This past summer, Henning and Sawyer incorporated a hands-on segment at Evergreen into the two-week summer program, giving teachers the chance to use what they had learned in the classroom on a field project. In the first days of the course, teachers learned how to use ground-penetrating radar (GPR), a noninvasive geophysical technique for exploring below the Earth’s surface, and geographic information systems (GIS) software that could store the information they found.
The class was divided into teams, and the teams selected questions they would work to answer while at Evergreen. The teachers spent several days there in the middle of July with the GPR equipment to look for disturbances in the sediment that might indicate a grave.
In just a few days, the teachers were able to collect significant data on Evergreen. ”These teachers were so fired up about this project that they worked well beyond the classroom hours on it,” Henning said. ”I really think that the community-service component of this class really got them so excited about the project. They’re an amazing group of teachers who were able to produce more information than we could have hoped for.”
Class participant Trudy Holmes, a seventh-grade science teacher at Trafton Academy, said, ”I chose to participate in this class because it sounded interesting, and I really learned some new material. The field work was the most enjoyable because we were using equipment that was new to us and we had a terrific opportunity to record historical data of our city.”
The data gathered this past July has been input into an ArcGIS program and a preliminary interactive map has been created that includes headstones, plots with concrete fixtures that may be indicating a family plot, descriptions of the headstones and notations about whether the person was in the military.
Sawyer and several students from his fall 2006 ”Geographic Information Science” class recently spent a Sunday at Evergreen using Total Station high-tech surveying equipment. ”With Total Station, we’ll be focusing on refining the work done by the teachers this summer and creating a precise interactive map with a searchable database that can be used both by people today and as a record of the state of Evergreen as it is now for future Houstonians.”
”The work done by the Rice students is invaluable to our ongoing programs,” said W.W. Jones II of Project RESPECT, an organization focusing on creating preservation programs for neglected and abandoned cemeteries in Texas. ”We hope to work with the Rice team to integrate our ideas and form the basis of a Web site that can serve as a model for the restoration and preservation of historical burial places.”
Though not working on Evergreen now, many of the teachers in the summer institute have enrolled in ”Putting Earth Science into Action.” Driving from as far away as Sugar Land and Humble every Tuesday night after a full day in the classroom with their middle school students, the teachers are eager to learn more about Earth science to share with students back in their classrooms. ”These teachers are amazingly enthusiastic and always thirsty for more information about Earth science,” Henning said. ”They’re the teachers I want my son to have.”