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Forgotten no more

TDCJ helps mark graves of unknowns lying near famous fellow Texan

They rest not far from one of the biggest names in Texas history. Yet most of the people interred in a five-acre parcel of land near the grave of Gen. Sam Houston in Huntsville’s historic Oakwood Cemetery have no known names. They were buried in unmarked graves as paupers years ago, and then for the most part, forgotten.

Today they remain nameless, but thanks to TDCJ and the city of Huntsville, they are no longer forgotten.

At the request of the city, Huntsville Unit Outside Maintenance Sgt. Billy Holmes and offender work crews helped identify the graves of the unknowns and then put up concrete crosses where there had been no headstones or in place of crude markers that had become covered or had fallen apart over time. The city of Huntsville supplied the concrete and TDCJ provided the molds for the markers.

“It’s like we brought a cemetery back to life,” Holmes said. “It was something that was kind of forgotten, and to have had the opportunity to come in and bring something back to life, it felt really good.”

Seargent Billy Holmes squatting near a grave marker
Huntsville Unit Outside Maintenance Sgt. Billy Holmes and offender work crews helped identify and mark the graves of unknowns in Huntsville’s historic Oakwood Cemetery.

Photo by David Nunnelee

John Hare, who works to maintain three cemeteries for the city as a crew leader with its Community Services Department, happened upon the graves not long after the city took over the burial ground from the local cemetery association in 2002. At that time, the graves located on the cemetery’s north side lay hidden beneath a thick tangle of trees and shrubs.

“I happened to walk into it and found some headstones,” Hare said.

In respect to those buried there, the city asked TDCJ if it would help clear the entangled parcel as one of its community service projects. Sgt. Holmes and his crews then spent about a year clearing the land and erecting approximately 200 markers. Today, the once forgotten graves are part of the city’s cemetery walking tour.

“The city just didn’t have the funds or the manpower to do it,” Hare said about the clearing. “So, without TDCJ, Sgt. Holmes and his men, we would have never gotten it done.”

As Holmes and his crews cleared the land, more and more headstones were unearthed. They identified other graves simply by noting swells or indentations in the ground. Because of their number, a single concrete cross marks two graves in some cases.

Hare said a prominent Huntsville family donated the land where the more than 200 indigents were buried over a period of nearly 100 years. The oldest grave, that of a baby, dates back to 1866. Another grave was dug as late as 1957. Hare said that the few graves marked by standing headstones are probably those of laborers who worked for wealthy families that could afford a marker. Cold blocks of concrete inlaid with seashells top one grave dug in the early 1900s. A crude headstone that looks to have been inscribed by hand marks another from that period.

“To me, these people here needed to be recognized just the same as the people that are on the hill who made Huntsville Huntsville,” Hare said about the project to reclaim the graves of indigents. “These were people who helped make Huntsville, too.”

Holmes said the graveyard restoration was a gratifying, almost spiritual experience for him.

“I think about how people can come together,” Holmes said while looking out over the grave markers. “People can make a difference, and I feel like the city of Huntsville and the state of Texas have come together and done something real positive. These people are gone but they are not forgotten. I feel real good about that.”

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