Here is another suggestion in our “Austin Gems” category (see the side bar on the right for a link to past posts). We share the hidden gems that make living in Austin a truly unique and special experience. While we enjoy visiting the State Capital Building, the Bob Bullock Texas History Museum, and the LBJ Library, for a unique look at Austin’s history, we recommend this lesser known treasure.
Do you ever wonder who our streets are named after? How about the old buildings downtown? Have you ever looked at history by visiting a cemetery? Today’s Austin Gem recommendation is a visit to Oakwood Cemetery for a unique look at Austin’s history.
The Oakwood Cemetery is located near the intersection of I-35 and MLK Boulevard. The cemetary is divided into two main sections with the older section to the west, closest to the highway. It is this older section that we focus on in this post. Oakwood Cemetery is Austin’s oldest cemetery and has been in use since 1839. The oldest visible date inscribed on a gravestone is 1842. The older section is nearly full, so new burials are rare, but still occur occasionally. This part of the cemetery covers roughly 40 acres of land and is divided into four general sections. Section 1 is the original cemetery and is now referred to as the “Old Grounds”.
What can you learn from Oakwood Cemetery?
Among other things, visiting an old cemetary such as Oakwood can provide a quick look at society during those times. For example, racial barriers were still strong in the late 1800s, so African-Americans were interred separately from the white people. Section 4 of the Oakwood Cemetery includes a large area now known as the “Colored Grounds” that was used specifically for burying the earliest black citizens of our city. Similarly, people of Mexican heritage were racially separated, even in death. Most of those burials occurred along the outer boundaries of the cemetery, especially concentrated on the south border. The indigent poor, or paupers, were also buried along the outer boundaries, most often in unmarked graves. Jewish people have two designated areas called “Beth Israel I”, located in Section 1, and “Beth Israel II”, located in Section 4. In today’s times, it is odd to even write things like “Colored” or to discuss the separation of people solely by their race or ethnic background. But in those days, all of society was quite segregated and seeing it in a cemetery helps bring that fact to light.
The history of Austin is buried in Oakwood Cemetery and information found there can identify when the city faced large scale epidemics. For example, there are a large number of gravestones showing dates of death in 1918. It was during that year that an epidemic of Spanish Flu struck Austin and killed hundreds of our early residents.
Another interesting thing you can learn from Oakwood Cemetery is the origin of the names of certain streets, buildings, parks, and landmarks. For example, you can visit gravestones with names like Bergstrom, Pease, Littlefield, Bouldin, Waller, Brackenridge, Lamme, Zilker, and many others.
Being the oldest cemetery in Austin, Oakwood also contains the graves of numerous historical figures prominent in our area. Alamo survivor Susanna Dickinson, Attorney General of Texas William Walton, Texas Supreme Court justice Charles West, and Annie Blanton, the first woman elected to statewide office in Texas, are all buried at Oakwood. Former Governors of Texas resting permanently at Oakwood Cemetery include Oscar Colquitt, Andrew Hamilton, James Hogg, Elisha Pease, and Oran Roberts.
What can you see at Oakwood Cemetery?
Aside from reading the names, a visit to Oakwood Cemetery provides a look at the changing styles of gravestones and markers throughout the years. The influence of Greek and Roman architecture can be found throughout the grounds. Varying materials, from shell to stones, can be viewed. Large above ground masoleums and tiny stones nearly lost to the elements are present.
Wrought Iron fencing with elaborate designs appear throughout the grounds. At one point, vandals and thieves stole away with huge sections of fencing, so most of the remaining pieces are now chained. The Beth Israel I area is completely surrounded by fencing, further illustrating the segregation that was common at the time.
The chapel has undergone numerous upgrades and restoration efforts. The building was built in the Gothic Revival style, including an adorned tower and arched windows.
Who would enjoy visiting Oakwood Cemetery?
Artists, especially Plein Air painters, will find a treasure trove of subject matter to capture on paper or canvas at the cemetery. Old growth trees, elaborate gravestones, various plants and flowers create opportunities for artists to practice their skills. Photographers will find an endless supply of subjects to shoot, from large landscape images to macro photos showing the close-up detail of the gravestones.
History buffs will marvel at the sheer number of recognizable names. Taking along reference material about Austin and Texas history will lead to discovery after discovery of names familiar and famous. Cultural anthropologists and social scientists will find the layout of the cemetery to be most telling of the general climate of society in the late 1800s and early 1900s in Austin. The clustering of names and families tell stories that span decades.
The cemetery has small roads and paths throughout, providing a quiet setting for an early morning walk or late afternoon stroll. Getting some outdoor exercise while taking a glimpse at our early history provides a more interesting setting than simply walking along the street. Due to the fragile nature of many of the grave markers, it is asked that visitors trod carefully throughout the grounds and take care to preserve the stones that remain.
For more information