Earlier this month, David Stevens purchased a small plot of land just off Vine St. and Ave. C, across the railroad tracks from the Brownwood Coliseum. It’s a wooded area, abutted by the tracks and a small pond, never developed despite being yards away from one of Brownwood’s oldest neighborhoods.
Stevens surveyed the land and the area around it and discovered a tombstone, seemingly unattached to any grave, for one R.B. Christmas. Christmas had died in December 1920 at just 2 years old. “A fairer bud of promise never bloomed,” read the epitaph.
The tombstone was just feet away from a stone marker for “The Carnes Residence” at 1306 Cottage St.
Intrigued, Stevens went to the Brownwood Genealogical Library to research the deceased child. He found his new land on satellite imagery and noticed something else — the clear, rectangular imprint of human activity on the site. Stevens said he went over the area with dowsing rods and got dozens of “hits,” one every few feet. The land in the area is bumpy, with prominent protrusions and depressions at regular intervals every few feet.
Stevens believes he has discovered an unmarked cemetery.
Clay Riley of the Pecan Valley Genealogical Society remembers a Brownwood Bulletin article from the 1990s that talked about a cemetery. As he recalls, it featured an older black man with a rake standing in front of wrought iron fencing and cemetery plots.
“I moved to Brownwood in 1994,” Riley said. “The gist of the article, as I recall, was that this old gentleman was concerned because there were no longer black people living around there. He was taking care of the cemetery, and he was concerned that when he passed, no one would take care of it any longer.”
Riley said he can’t find that article today — and no one can find the cemetery. It would be helpful, he said, in establishing where the cemetery was and who might know about it.
“As the years passed, I got interested in the black history of Brown County,” Riley said. “Primarily because it was almost entirely unrecorded. I talked to several black people in the community and started to gather that history, and of course one of those things was trying to locate that cemetery.
“I’m not sure exactly where it would have been. The likelihood of what [Stevens] is pointing out — it’s definitely a possibility.”
Before the so-called “flats” became Brownwood’s primary black housing area, Riley said the neighborhood near Stevens’s land was first. In an era of strict segregation, the separation between white and black extended into the afterlife, meaning the land could be a logical location for a black cemetery.
Riley, a retired engineer, isn’t necessarily convinced by dowsing rod activity. But having tried the practice himself, he said dowsing does seem to work fairly well. And Riley has now seen the site and said the supposed graves are oriented in the traditional direction — east-west — and that the satellite imagery is consistent with other cemeteries he’s found.
“From all appearances,” Riley said, “it does appear to be a cemetery. Now, whether it’s a black cemetery, I don’t know.”
Ronnie Lappe is a Brownwood lawyer and the chairman of the Brown County Historical Commission, the local offshoot of the Texas Historical Commission. Restoring historic cemeteries is a big part of the commission’s job, but this one has eluded him.
“There were some older African-American people who told me there was a cemetery,” Lappe said. “They didn’t know where it was. We’ve been trying to find it.
“I’ve been out there a few times, but it was so overgrown I didn’t stomp around much. I was expecting to see some tombstones out there, but [Stevens] said there aren’t any.”
Riley suggested the absence of tombstones and a fence could be explained if the property had been bulldozed. “And that has happened to cemeteries before,” he said. “When people reclaim land, they don’t realize it’s a felony to do something like that so they’ll go in and bulldoze all the markers off.”
Riley said the next step is to look for documentation that mentions a cemetery in that location. If the Genealogical Society can prove that land is an abandoned cemetery, it can be fenced and protected and the landowner will have to provide “reasonable access” to the property in accordance with state law. “You have to be able to prove it’s a cemetery,” Riley said. “We’re a long way from saying that’s definitely a cemetery, or a black cemetery, but early indications are it might be.”
And what of the Christmas headstone Stevens found? Looking through county records, Stevens believed the child was white and belonged to Brownwood couple J.C. Christmas and Viola Barnett.
“[Stevens] had found a birth certificate, he thought, for the child,” Riley said. “Unfortunately, what he had was the wrong birth certificate. This child was born in San Saba County.”
Turns out, the headstone was stolen from a San Saba cemetery. Riley was able to locate Christmas’s sister and tell her the location of the headstone, allowing her to retrieve it. “It appears as though vandals took it, and for whatever reason dumped it over there.”
The Genealogical Society is asking anyone with information about Brownwood’s missing black cemetery to visit the library at 213 S. Broadway St. or call 325-646-6006.