Wyatt Chapel Community Cemetery at Prairie View A&M University
[by T. DeWayne Moore]
July 6, 2021
Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU), the first public supported historically black university (HBCU) in Texas, was established on Alta Vista, the former plantation of slave owner Colonel Jared E. Kirby, who, in 1860, after a decade of steady accumulation, had perhaps become the wealthiest resident in then-Austin County. Just before the Civil War, Kirby owned more than 8,000 acres worth $285,000, and $175,000 in personal property, including 139 enslaved men and women. According to oral tradition, Kirby set aside some land as a burial site for the enslaved from both Alta Vista and Liendo, a plantation owned by Kirby's cousin, Leonard Waller Groce. Hundreds of unmarked graves on the edge of campus are believed to date to the antebellum period, but African Americans continued to use the cemetery after Kirby's widow, Helen Marr Swearingen Kirby, deeded the plantation to the state in 1876 for the establishment of PVAMU. Later, it became associated with and named for Wyatt Chapel, a nearby African American church. Based on slave schedules, Wyatt Chapel Community Cemetery might contain the graves of over 2,000 of the enslaved, formerly enslaved, descendants of the enslaved, and other itinerant workers. No one made a formal record of these burials, however, and the historic burial ground, which is located behind University Village Phase III, was over time abandoned, especially after 1961, with the establishment of nearby Prairie View Memorial Gardens. While the cemetery contains only a handful of marked graves, we have recently discovered a host of death certificates that prove the cemetery contains veterans of World Wars I and II, former slaves and their descendants, and local pastor George Wyatt, who represented Waller County in the state legislature in the 1880s.
In the early 1990s, the state of Texas erected a historical marker on the road closest to the cemetery, but the site became conspicuous for the dumping of trash and non-disposable debris leading up to the summer of 2007, when participants in a graduate course at Rice University and PVAMU acquired global positioning systems and ground-penetrating radar to prove that such equipment could be used to locate lost graves. Over the next few years, graduate students from Rice University followed up on these efforts and noted hundreds of "anomalies" on the surface of the ground. Yet, Rice did not complete their study of the cemetery, and many questions remain about the actual boundaries of the burial ground as well as the number of internments on site.
From the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, the Annual Slave Cemetery Trek—hosted by the Division of Social Work, Behavioral and Political Science and covered in the student newspaper, The Prairie View Panther—made sure that students at Prairie View A&M University learned about Wyatt Chapel Community Cemetery and the institutional history of the university.
Dr. Howard Jones and Dr. Kevin Washington led groups of students to the slave cemetery “on a journey into history and a journey into the spirit,” and they explained:
“there are men buried here who had their testicles cut off as punishment for attempting to procreate with the women. There are women buried here who were raped and beaten by the slave master and were not allowed to refuse his seed.”
According to Prairie View Panther reporter Tony Browne, “the students realized the pain and suffering that our ancestors went through as they stood in the presence of the many graves of men, women, and children. A variety of tombstones, crude markers and sunken-in areas of earth are silent reminders of the agony, torment, anguish, and nauseating misery that our forefathers and mothers endured, in hopes that we would live a better life…The slave cemetery is a place for us to go and pay respect as well as reflect on our conditions as a people both in the past and at the present.”
In several articles in the school newspaper, students exclaim that “there needs to be an understanding that while we are here doing what we are doing, there were others who came before us that worked diligently to produce the opportunities that we have at the present time.” Another student writes, “Our spirits within ourselves, which guide our dreams, visions, and actions, should be positively consistent with the spirits of those who came before us.” The disappointing fact, however, is that the Annual Slave Cemetery Trek ended sometime after the new milennium. Whereas students once lamented how the cemetery was littered with the beer cans, styrofoam containers, and other trash, which served as “painful evidence of the lack of respect and understanding,” now the burial ground is maintained by the university.
Frank Jackson, the longtime mayor of the city of Prairie View, also led students across the soil of African slave roots in Waller County, and he declared, "This is the same path that over 200 years ago was walked by 150 young African slaves.” As the students began the short journey to the wooden area of the hidden cemetery, some of them complained about the distance while others backed away because of fear. Jackson explained, "The known yardage of the cemetery is unknown," and the lives of the enslaved interments have been forgotten as if they never lived. Jackson exclaimed, "Wyatt Chapel cemetery is a great legacy that will allow future generations to understand their past."
Lastly, Gregory Bevels, a former student and reporter for the Prairie View Panther, agreed with Jackson and exhorted, “Without the efforts of those individuals held as slaves, whose blood, sweat, and tears have been poured into the land we walk on each day, this university might not have become a reality. The individuals buried in the Wyatt Chapel cemetery are truly gone. What are the students and faculty of Prairie View A&M University going to do in order to make sure they are not forgotten?”
by T. DeWayne Moore
In reaction to the death of George Floyd, Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU) President Ruth J. Simmons decided to establish the Center for Race & Justice (CRJ) and the Epa Committee on the Legacy of Slavery and the Impact of Segregation “to affirm to our students that we are awake, that we are concerned for their future, and that we are the Prairie View of our lineage,” and this proposal takes an important step towards realizing her goals by hiring a remote sensing firm, PaleoWest, to conduct a comprehensive archaeological study of Wyatt Chapel Community Cemetery, and by hiring a landscape architect, Azzurra Cox, to develop a landscape design concept for a memorial park and outdoor history museum.
This project will lay the crucial foundations for all future student-engaged public history projects, scholarly publications, and reparative justice initiatives of the Epa Committee on the Legacy of Slavery and the Impact of Segregation.
On one hand, Wyatt Chapel Community Cemetery is about the past buried in it, but it also has an innate orientation towards the future. The extant grave markers beckon us to read them and remember. They speak to the hopes of the formerly enslaved and their ancestors. Yet, the burial ground is an inherent site of transition — a gateway between past and present, life and death, material and spiritual, earth and heaven. Perhaps more than any other site on campus, it communicates the powerful communal and spiritual values that underscore the lived experiences of African Americans. The cemetery also tells the story of the university and its connection to plantation slavery, segregation, disfranchisement, and the struggle for racial equality.
One vision for Wyatt Chapel Community Cemetery is to leave much of what’s there intact, to edit the landscape and work with it. The decline of the cemetery is rooted in systemic racism, which limited the accumulation of black wealth and agency, and the cemetery’s restoration should reflect that history. It’s not about going back to what it looked like in 1921, at the time Rev. George Wyatt was most likely buried inside the metal fence enclosure. Rather, the restoration is about hope for the future. It’s about redressing the legacy of slavery, allowing the interments buried in unmarked graves and their descendants to speak for themselves—to educate and inspire the students still fighting for voting and civil rights in Waller County.
To realize this vision, a hybrid landscape would allow for a variety of treatments from maintaining what's there to newly created memorialization, which allows the cemetery to stay relevant over time. The trees noted in the Rice University study of the cemetery would serve as a new public entrance and undergo a useful transformation into an orchard, or a field for growing food — any sort of active use that would attract visitors. The main section would remain a prairie landscape, and the wilder parts further back would remain forested. At the end of a Texas winter, vines will blend into trees and create enclosed pathways in the rear sections of burial ground, retaining something of a Southern Gothic aesthetic. During warmer seasons, the trees will shade the paths, and the birds will sing, and you might even forget for a moment that you stand amidst the unmarked graves of slaves. Indeed, the wildest, most unkempt parts of the cemetery can also be the most sublime. Now, imagine other parts of Wyatt Chapel Community Cemetery fully restored to create a series of outdoor settings, complete with sculpture and monuments that recalibrate the center of institutional history at PVAMU as well as the local history of Waller County to include those who have too often been denied historical recognition.
PaleoWest’s proposed scope of work includes costs for Antiquities Permit acquisition, archaeological pedestrian survey, GPR investigations, reporting, and curation, and Azzurra Cox’s proposed scope of work includes costs for preliminary research, site visit, and concept development.
Task 1. Antiquities Permit Acquisition (Fall 2021)
Prior to initiating fieldwork, the Principal Investigator will prepare a research design and obtain an Antiquities Permit from the Texas Historical Commission (THC). The research design will detail the project approach and proposed methods for archaeological pedestrian survey and GPR investigations. Archaeologists will also consult the THC’s online Texas Archeological Sites Atlas to identify previously recorded archaeological sites, surveys, and designated historic properties located within 0.25 kilometers (km) of the project area. This data, along with soils and geology for the project area, will be included in the research design accompanying the permit application.
Task 2. Archaeological Pedestrian Survey (January-February 2022)
PaleoWest archaeologists will lead a team of student volunteers in an intensive pedestrian survey of the project area, anticipated to cover 3-5 acres in size. Archaeologists will work with small groups of students to teach them basic pedestrian survey techniques. The field team will walk the project area in transects spaced 30 meters (m) apart, looking for evidence of grave markers, grave tending materials, depressions, or other potential indicators of the presence of burials. These features will be marked with pin flags and then mapped with a handheld Trimble GPS unit. No artifacts will be collected as part of this effort, but grave markers and potential grave tending artifacts will be photographed in the field.
Archaeologists will also work with students to record the Wyatt Chapel Cemetery as an archaeological site, which will provide it with a state-registered trinomial. Students will work with PaleoWest staff to record the site on a TexSite form in the field. This form will be submitted to the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory (TARL) in Austin to obtain the trinomial.
Task 3. Ground Penetrating Radar Survey (February 2022)
Based on the results of the pedestrian survey, PaleoWest will work with Prairie View to select an area for GPR survey to locate burials and/or establish cemetery boundaries. Since it is anticipated the pedestrian survey could expand the potential boundaries of the cemetery, the GPR survey will be limited to a sample of 1 acre. This sample will allow investigators to review data to assess the success of GPR in delineating both boundaries and burial locations before investigating the entirety of an area that could prove to be much larger than expected and may require additional resources. In addition, while previous GPR work appears to have been successful in identifying burials within the cemetery, the current investigation will need to replicate these results. Results can vary according to the amount of moisture in the soil, the type of burial container, whether a burial container is present, whether grave goods are present, and the types of sediments present surrounding the burial. Sampling provides an opportunity to gather additional data at a later date if the work is successful, to obtain additional funding if the cemetery appears to be much larger than expected, and/or to revisit the site with a different methodology if the results are inconclusive.
A suite of geophysical techniques, including a fluxgate gradiometer and GPR will be used to help locate unmarked graves. A grid at the sites will be established using an RTK (sub-centimeter) GNSS system or a Robotic Total Data Station (TDS). All anomalies with archaeological significance will be located on the ground using the RTK GNSS. Given the possible presence of clay soils, using a suite of geophysical instruments is recommended. A magnetometer survey will be added to this survey for no additional charge to help increase the potential of a successful survey.
Gradiometer data will be collected at 0.5 meter traverse interval and 10 hz sample interval resulting in approximately 20 readings per m2. GPR data will be collected using a 400 Mhz dipole antenna at a 0.5 m traverse interval. Non-magnetic markers will mark the corners of the grids and flags will be placed along the top and bottom of the grids. All grid corners will be recorded with a sub-centimeter RTK GNSS.
All data will be processed and filtered to remove extraneous false readings (spikes and drop-outs). Data sets will be processed to enhance the legibility of the target features through statistical manipulation of the recorded data as well as through image processing of the image file output. Benchmarks, corner stakes, and impediments in the collection area (i.e. trees, buildings, areas not collected) will be labelled on output images.
Task 4. Reporting (March 2022)
Following the completion of fieldwork and analysis, PaleoWest will prepare a draft report of findings for submission the Texas Historical Commission (THC). This report will contain the results of the pedestrian survey and GPR. Maps will depict the locations of potential burials, grave markers and grave tending goods located during the survey, and the GPR results will include locations of all anomalies interpreted at possible unmarked graves. The locations of these anomalies will be marked in the field using survey grade RTK GNSS (<1 cm accuracy). Once the report has been approved, PaleoWest will produce the required number of reports and provide them to the appropriate agencies.
Task 5. Curation (March 2022)
All paperwork will be transported to PaleoWest’s office in Austin when fieldwork is complete to prepare them for curation as required by the Antiquities Permit. PaleoWest will curate paperwork to TARL upon THC acceptance of the draft report.
Table 1. PaleoWest Cost Estimate
Task 1. Antiquities Permit Acquisition $680
Task 2. Archaeological Pedestrian Survey $1,640
Task 3. Ground Penetrating Radar Survey $5,760
Task 4. Report $5,260
Task 5. Curation $150
Direct Expenses $1,701
SUBTOTAL $ 15,191
Table 2. Azzurra Cox Cost Estimate
(January – March 2022)
Booklet including site documentation, preliminary research, concept sketches, three concept plans
Task 1. Preliminary/Pre-Site Visit Research $600
Task 2. Site Visit 1 (1-2 days)
Travel, Research, Walking tour, Meetings$1,750
Task 3. Concept Plan
Post-site visit analysis, Concept formation $2,400
GRAND TOTAL $19,941
Perpetual maintenance of the cemetery and systematic study will be the most important immediate outcomes on the project, but landscape architecture and memorialization will be crucial to the perpetual maintenance of the burial ground. In this vision, landscape design becomes a crucial element of not only preservation strategy but also student activism and community development. The transformation of Wyatt Chapel Community Cemetery into a memorial park and outdoor history museum will connect past struggles to the current movement for voting rights. As a site of conscience, it can turn memory into action. By showcasing the different landscapes that developed over the years, and highlighting the sporadic maintenance efforts of students and volunteers, it departs drastically from the preservation strategies at other forlorn and forgotten African American burial grounds, and it offers a more transformative vision of the future, one that more closely aligns with President Simmons’ vision for the future of the university, and one which inspired the Epa Committee on the Legacy of Slavery and the Impact of Segregation.
Dr. DeWayne Moore
As Principal Investigator, DeWayne is a Lecturer of U.S. and Public History at PVAMU, and he currently serves as director of the grant subcommittee for the Epa Committee on the Legacy of Slavery and the Impact of Segregation. He holds a master’s degree in museum and archival administration from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as a digital media strategist at the Center for Popular Music, the Albert Gore Sr. Archives, and the James Walker Library. He earned his Ph.D. in African American history at the University of Mississippi, where he worked as an archival research specialist for the Blues Archive and the Burns Belfry African American History Museum. He has published peer-reviewed articles in the Association for Recorded Sound Collections Journal, The Public Historian, and UNC-Chapel Hill’s Southern Cultures journal, and he has organized undergraduate and community-engaged research projects as the executive director of the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund, a historical consulting firm that erects memorials for blues artists and maintains abandoned cemeteries in the US South. Click HERE for more information.
Dr. Nesta Anderson
As Office Principal for PaleoWest’s Austin, Texas, office, Nesta brings nearly 30 years of cultural resources management experience to clients. She most recently served as a Program Manager for Pape-Dawson Engineers and Atkins in Texas. Nesta is using her extensive private and public sector network to solidify PaleoWest as the leading cultural and heritage resources firm in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Click HERE for more information.
Robin Cordero M.A., RPA
As the leader of PaleoWest’s Education Outreach Program, Robin brings over 20 years of experience in cultural resource management to the project. He has directed dozens of Federal, Tribal, State, and private-sector projects in New Mexico and southern Colorado. Prior to joining PaleoWest, he served as a Principal Investigator/Lab Director at the University of New Mexico’s Office of Contract Archaeology. Click HERE for more information.
Dr. Chet Walker
As the ground penetrating radar specialist, Chet brings over 20 years of experience in the field of archaeology and has been involved with projects in North, South, and Central America, the Pacific, and Europe. He has authored or co-authored publications and/or technical reports on research in eight countries and 21 states, and he has worked for academic institutions and private cultural resource firms. In the spring of 2006, Dr. Walker founded Archaeo-Geophysical Associates, LLC, an archaeological consulting firm specializing in geophysical prospection, he has collected geophysical data on over 145 archaeological sites totaling 1,539 Acres of Gradiometer, 115 Acres of Ground-Penetrating Radar, and 484 Acres of Electromagnetic Induction Meter.
She comes to landscape architecture by way of her love of cities and her commitment to public space. She infuses her interest in social theory and the humanities into her landscape design work, and she believes in the power of landscape to shape and reflect collective social narratives. Azzurra brings a range of experiences in the worlds of design activism, publishing, and curation to her work, and she was named the 2016 National Olmsted Scholar by the Landscape Architecture Foundation for her research on African American cultural landscapes in St. Louis. Azzurra holds an MLA from the Harvard Graduate School of Design and a BA in Social Studies from Harvard College. Azzurra is an Associate at Seattle-based GGN and serves as Urban Design Commissioner on the Seattle Design Commission, reviewing all city capital-improvement projects. Click HERE for more information.