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Apr 23, 2012 | Luke Blount

Youth Learn Black History with Earth Day Project

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Two youth groups from St. Aidan’s, Cypress, and Christ Church Cathedral, Houston, teamed up on Earth Day for a beautification project at historic Olivewood Cemetery, the oldest African-American cemetery in Houston, near the banks of White Oak Bayou. After an early worship service at the Cathedral, the groups traveled to the cemetery to mow, weed and pick up debris.


Volunteers were treated to a lesson on the rich history of Olivewood from Charles Cook, the co-president of Descendants of Olivewood, a non-profit organization formed by family members of the deceased. The group has charged themselves with maintaining and improving the cemetery, which was all but forgotten until the mid-1990s.


“In 1996, when I came to visit, it was a jungle out here,” Cook said. “I had to chop with a machete for hours just to get through.”


Descendants of Olivewood was formed in 2003, and since that time the organization has used volunteer support to reclaim the cemetery from the elements. Last summer, Nikki Blount, the director of the Cathedral Urban Service Experience (CUSE) took Episcopal youth groups to Olivewood to help landscape the property. Blount, who is also the youth minister at St. Aidan's, coordinated with the Cathedral's youth minister, Jeremy Bradley, and Descendants co-president Margott Williams to arrange the day of service.


“It’s just beautiful!” an emotional Williams said when she visited the cemetery on Earth Day.


The cemetery holds volunteer days every first and third Saturday of each month and works with the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and other volunteer groups regularly. But Williams was especially thankful for the work of the Episcopal Church.


“More than anything we rely on y’all to help us out here,” she said.


As the youth group removed layers of weeds and debris, they unearthed history at their feet.


“We uncovered the graves of three World War I veterans!” exclaimed one middle school landscaper.


As the youth groups worked, a couple of photographers visited to document some of the more interesting and intricate headstones. According to Cook, the cemetery, which was founded in the 1870s, contains the remains of people born as early as the 1790s.


Cook was already working when the youth groups arrived. At least twice a month, Cook uses his push-mower and any volunteer help he can find to cut the grass of more than eight acres of land. He had worked six hours the day before, and when the group left at 4 p.m., Cook continued mowing.


“Watching these kids gives me an extra boost out here,” he said. “It’s just so wonderful for me to see these young people out here giving back. A lot of people just want to take, but y’all are giving back and that's great.”


After the last burial in the 1960s, the cemetery slowly began to decay. Water run-off from an adjacent factory caused a small ravine to form at one end of the cemetery, washing away several graves. Many headstones have been broken or misplaced and overgrowth from bushes, trees, weeds and vines has hidden many gravesites. But when the layers of brush are wiped away, beautiful messages to and from the deceased can be uncovered. One recently exposed headstone read “gone but not forgotten.”


Descendants of Olivewood plan to beautify the cemetery and create a classroom for Houstonians to learn about the history of local African-Americans, but they still need funding. Until then, Cook and Williams will take all the volunteers they can get.


“We thank y’all so much for remembering olivewood,” Cook said. “You don't have any idea the impact you have made.”


Earth Day occurs annually on April 22 to increase awareness and appreciation of the Earth's natural environment. To learn more about how to help Olivewood Cemetery, visit