History and legends: How racism fueled the start of Mount Olive Cemetery
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories about local history and legends. The first story, “Killer tale: Unraveling the mystery of the mummy,” focused on the legend that Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, fled to Texas and lived in Granbury and Glen Rose before his death. The story was published in the Wednesday, June 12, edition of the Empire-Tribune.
The small sign that sits at the end of a narrow dirt path on College Farm Road might just be missed if you aren’t paying close attention.
But just before the railroad tracks and the once vibrant St. John’s Baptist Church sits a small cemetery with a large history.
The dirt road leading into Mount Olive Cemetery is dotted with 250 known African-American graves and dozens more unmarked, that sit among beautiful shade trees and perfectly manicured grass.
You would never know that such a peaceful place was born from the ugliness of racism.
Documents obtained from the Erath County Historical Association outline the troubling beginnings of Mount Olive Cemetery.
The documents state that slaves and freedmen were buried at Stephenville West End Cemetery in a segregated plot from the founding of Erath County in 1856.
That changed in 1922 when the decision was made to exhume the bodies of African-Americans from West End to a segregated cemetery for blacks only.
How the decision was made and who was behind the push is “murky,” according to the historical society, but what is documented is that on April 22, 1922, the Stephenville City Council approved the plan to exhume the bodies.
“The West End Cemetery Association then met with the Colored BurialAssociation to break the news that black bodies would be moved,” the documents state. “Three days after the council meeting, the Colored Burial Association bought three acres from Charles Neblett to establish a burial ground. The cemetery was named Mount Olive and was established near the African-American worship center, St. John’s Baptist Church, on south College Farm Road. Dozens of bodies of graves were exhumed and relocated to the new cemetery.”
Families of those who were exhumed were compensated with offers to pay for future burial plots.
The Empire-Tribune covered the story in May of that year using the headline “Negro Burial Grounds.”
The story reportedly never mentions the fact that the blacks were forced to move, and instead focused on plans they had to “beautify the new cemetery,” according to the historical commission.
Wallace Howell was the first person to be buried in Mount Olive on May 5, 1922.
“Using head stones, cemetery inventories, and death records, it is believed that a total of 265 identifiable African-Americans are buried in the cemetery,” the document reads. “There are few records available for burials between 1856 and the early 1900s, and no records for the number of graves that were relocated in 1922.”
MOUNT OLIVE TODAY
The cemetery was maintained by the Colored Burial Association until it was taken over by the city of Stephenville in 1972.
A family plot for the Edwards family marks a mother, father and their children. The last member of the Edwards family buried in Mount Olive is Gertrude Chandler Hicks who died in 1981.
Burials still take place at Mount Olive Cemetery today with several interments a year.
“This is an important part of Erath County history that not many people know about,” said Cathey Hartmann, chairman of the Erath County Historical Commission, which dedicated a historical marker at the cemetery in 2018. “It deserves recognition not just for the African-American community, but for everyone.”
While trying to secure the historical marker for Mount Olive, the historical commission wrote, “Recognizing Mt. Olive Cemetery with a historical marker may not erase the deed that was done almost one hundred years ago, but it would at least tell the story of a mostly unknown incident that is part of Erath County history. Young people would learn of an era that people had to live through and perhaps understand that although race relations have certainly improved, they still have a long way to go. To those who have family members buried at this cemetery, they don’t think of it as a burial place that was born from segregation, but as an honorable resting place for their ancestors. “