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‘Everyone’s story matters.’ Tarleton works to preserve city’s historic African-American cemetery.

Photo courtesy TSU Media Relations

TSU Media Relations

Among the trees and autumn leaves lies a century’s worth of some of Stephenville’s richest history and Tarleton State University is partnering with community leaders to preserve it.

Just before the railroad tracks on College Farm Road, at the once flourishing St. John’s Baptist Church, a small graveyard with a big story lies quietly, surely unopposed to a little attention.

The dirt road leading into Mount Olive Cemetery (established in 1922) is dotted with 250 known African-American graves and another 90 that remain unmarked.

In 2021, a team from the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University used ground-penetrating radar to locate every gravesite in the cemetery.

Now Tarleton has joined the city of Stephenville and the Cross Timbers Fine Arts Council to properly acknowledge each unmarked burial with a stone inscribed “unknown.”

That’s just the beginning.

Dr. Deborah Liles and her students are combing local written and digital archives to write the history of St. John’s and Mount Olive and those buried there.

It will chronicle 100 years of African-American life in Erath County and tie to the larger American story.

The team’s research will be published, with proceeds going to the Mount Olive Cemetery Association for continued upkeep.

“Mount Olive is a sacred place,” said Stephenville Mayor Doug Svien. “Our collaboration with Tarleton is about uplifting the achievements of African-Americans. We are one city, one county, with a responsibility to our forebears.

“That’s a good thing to remember, and Tarleton is right there helping us do it.”

Tarleton President James Hurley said this kind of “meaningful human endeavor” binds a university to its community.

“Let us never be only books and classrooms,” Dr. Hurley said. “Let Tarleton herald and honor its neighbors. We are proud to partner with our city leaders to celebrate our diverse history.”

Many of the burials were relocated from Stephenville’s West End Cemetery, which dates to 1856.

Wallace Howell was the first person to be buried in Mount Olive, on May 5, 1922.

A family plot for the Edwards family marks a mother, father and their children. The last of the Edwards clan to be buried there was Gertrude Chandler Hicks in 1981.

Directional and entry signs soon will point the way to the cemetery, now barely noticeable from the roadway.

Dr. Liles and her spring art class will create a stained-glass mural to honor those interred, and a community-wide unveiling — complete with new burial markers — is planned for late 2023.

“This project is vital to create a more inclusive history of Erath County,” Dr. Liles said. “It provides a tremendous experience for our students to discover the value of public history and community activism.

“Everyone’s story matters.”


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