Olivewood Cemetery: one of America's 11 most endangered historic places
Historic Olivewood Cemetery. Photo by Jasmine Lee.

Olivewood Cemetery, the oldest African American cemetery still in existence in Houston, was recently named one of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation of 2022 (NTHP).

“Olivewood Cemetery is tremendously significant in American history because it connects us directly to the powerful stories of Black men and women who were brought to this country enslaved, participated in the earliest Juneteenth celebrations of their emancipation in 1865, built Houston’s Black community, and went on to vote and run for elective office as free citizens,” said Katherine Malone-France, chief preservation officer, NTHP.

Charles Cook, volunteer groundskeeper of Olivewood Cemetery. Photo by Jasmine Lee.

For over three decades, the NTHP has brought awareness to the threats many historic sites face by placing them on their “Endangered Historic Places” list.

Olivewood Cemetery addition to this list is a very public recognition of the ever-growing threat of increased flooding in the Houston area due to the climate crisis, as well as other threats, including vandalism, to the sanctity of the cemetery.

Still, flooding is considered the site’s greatest threat. Major flooding events, such as the extreme flooding of 2016 and Hurricane Harvey in 2017, not only submerged Olivewood Cemetery, but the floodwater can also dislodge and damage headstones. Heavy rains and flooding also increase sediment accumulation and contribute to the shifting of monuments over time and leave graves vulnerable to the threat of erosion. These impacts pose an imminent threat to the remaining tombstones in Olivewood Cemetery.

Incorporated in 1875, Olivewood Cemetery is the oldest African American cemetery remaining in Houston. Of the nearly 4,000 burials, roughly a quarter of the individuals at rest in Olivewood experienced the horrors of enslavement, while many were born post-Emancipation. Olivewood Cemetery is also the final resting place for three of the four founders of Houston’s Emancipation Park, and many other pillars of the city’s early Black community.

Since 2003, the Descendants of Olivewood, Inc. have endeavored to preserve the dignity and history of Olivewood Cemetery with countless hours of hard work alongside the many volunteers that have graced Olivewood Cemetery. 

“Olivewood is a place where you can share the same space as historic figures like Richard Allen or Frank Vance,” said Margott Williams, president of Descendants of Olivewood. “Headstones tell the story of how towns, cities, and nations are built.”

Photos by Jasmine Lee.

With the support of an African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund grant in 2021, the organization has undertaken a comprehensive study to clarify the extent of the threat from flooding and erosion, and identify specific protection and mitigation measures, but advocates will need partnerships and funding to implement these plans.

“This sacred place and the dedicated volunteers who have brought it back to life need expanded partnerships and support to help protect Olivewood Cemetery from the increasing impacts of climate change-related extreme weather,” said Malone-France.