For over a century, Greenwood Cemetery has stood as a final resting place for many Wacoans and as an important marker for city history.
Established as a segregated cemetery in 1875, Greenwood sits just off of I-35 Business 77. Some of Waco’s most notable African American citizens—including the great baritone Broadway singer Jules Bledsoe, accomplished professor Dr. Vivienne Lucille Malone-Mayes, and Negro League Baseball star Andrew Lewis Cooper—lie in rest there. The cemetery also holds graves for both Union and Confederate soldiers who fought in the Civil War, as well as a mass grave of victims from the 1918 influenza epidemic during World War I. However, a chain-link fence separated the white and black graves until the twenty-first century. Though no one can remember the origin of the fence, it stood for many years as a harsh reminder of racial inequality.
For much of Greenwood’s history, volunteers maintained the cemetery. The People’s Cemetery Association cared for the black side of the cemetery until 2007, and the East Waco Greenwood Cemetery Association cared for the white side until 2014. Despite the efforts of these volunteers, each association experienced difficulty in securing funds and membership to adequately care for the cemetery. Both associations ultimately voted to turn over care of the cemetery to the city of Waco.
Greenwood has served Waco for more than 125 years and time has taken its toll. Although most people today use gravestones, financial struggles led some families in the past to use wood or random objects as markers, and some did not use a marker at all. The use of materials other than stone led to significant deterioration among many grave markers, making it difficult for families to locate loved ones.
The East Waco community has been calling for the preservation of Greenwood Cemetery for many years. Upon taking full control of the cemetery in 2014, the City of Waco promised to maintain and preserve this piece of history as well as improve it and make it more attractive and safe. In addition to cleaning up and caring for the space, the city pledged to replace a stolen historical marker, create a more attractive entrance to the cemetery, and remove the controversial fence segregating graves.
However, a lack of clear ownership for much of the land in the cemetery and a concern that unmarked graves might exist below the fence delayed its removal. After two years of research and work with the Texas Historical Commission, the City of Waco removed the chain-link fence in June 2016. The posts remain until the city is able to obtain the services of an archaeologist to ensure that unmarked graves are not disturbed by their removal.
Though the removal of the fence represents a move toward unity and preservation, the work is not finished. East Wacoans and park officials are still striving to ensure that a fence enclosing and unifying the entire cemetery is built, a more attractive entrance created, and appropriate signage developed so that the story of this important place in East Waco is not forgotten.