STEPHENVILLE, Texas — Among the trees and autumn leaves lies some of Stephenville’s richest history — a century’s worth — 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 1922) is dotted with 250 known African American graves and another 90 unmarked.
At year’s end 2021, a team from the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University used ground-penetrating radar to locate all gravesites 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. Tarleton’s W.K. Gordon Endowed Chair in Texas History, Dr. Liles serves on the board of several historical associations statewide and is known for her award-winning work on women, slavery, local communities and ranching.
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.”
The Stephenville City Council received a project update at its October meeting.
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,” he said. “Let Tarleton herald and honor its neighbors. We are proud to partner with our city leaders to celebrate our diverse history.”
Dr. Liles: “This project is vital to create a more inclusive history of Erath County. It provides a tremendous experience for our students to discover the value of public history and community activism. Everyone’s story matters.”
Christine Newton, Executive Director of the Cross Timbers Fine Arts Council, concurs. “Nothing gives better insight into a people’s culture than the way they are memorialized. With Tarleton’s research, we hope to bring in the living community to learn about the families associated with Mount Olive and to better understand our heritage of place.”
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.
The project is registered with the Black Cemetery Network, an organization committed to identifying and saving African American burial sites.
For more information, contact Tarleton’s Division of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and International Programs at 254-968-0506.A founding member of The Texas A&M University System, Tarleton is breaking records — in enrollment, research, scholarship, athletics, philanthropy and engagement — while transforming the lives of more than 15,000 students in Stephenville, Fort Worth, Waco, Midlothian, A&M RELLIS at Bryan and online. True to Tarleton’s values of excellence, integrity, and respect, academic programs emphasize real world learning and address regional, state and national needs.