Life After Death: How Olivewood's Cemetery Records Resurrect the History of Houston's Black Community
Mouton, Lisa M.
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Cemeteries contribute to the tapestry of a community’s social history. Olivewood, the oldest incorporated African American cemetery in Houston, tells the stories of courage, struggle, joys, and the sorrows that contribute to the community’s collective memory. The memorial itself, as well as the lives of those interred in Olivewood also offer insight into the quality of their lives. The records collected by Descendants of Olivewood, Inc., the official guardians of Olivewood Cemetery, offer valuable information that can begin to answer questions about not only death, but also life. These records, many of which remain unpublished, help paint a picture of the community that founded and maintained this historic cemetery, as well as provide insight into the lives that these men, women, and children led. This study uses the information gleaned from the cemetery’s records to add to the existing historiography regarding the quality of life of the African American community in Houston during the Great Depression. A time of struggle for many, due to the socioeconomic, sociocultural, and political dynamics of the era, the Great Depression particularly burdened black Americans. This thesis takes an in-depth look at the records available through the cemetery as well as other primary sources to look at a microcosm of Houston’s Black community and the quality of the lives they led. Moreover, by looking at the cemetery itself—the markers, headstones, and even its layout—one can see the impact of religious belief on their society. This thesis merges statistics with the broader human aspect to draw conclusions regarding longevity, disease, healthcare, labor, education, business development, family, and the building of the African American community in Houston. The Great Depression was a time of enormous tragedy and socioeconomic instability that impacted impoverished Blacks to a greater degree than their counterparts of the racial majority, due to the special challenges they faced during this time of Jim Crow segregation and racial exclusion. However, this thesis shows that despite the crisis, Blacks in Houston enjoyed a greater quality of life than might be expected under the circumstances. Those interred in Olivewood fought to the end, and they can still tell their tale, long after their deaths.