All across Waller County, and in fact around the state, sit abandoned cemeteries containing the remains of African-Americans who where denied burial in predominantly White cemeteries. Prairie View A&M College, took up the responsibility for interring the remains of its employees, just as they assumed the tasked of educating of Black school children from the local school district.
Just as the university continues to provide the local school district a facility for educating the districts youth, albeit for only a dollar a year, they also continue to provide a final resting place for local residents.
Former university president, Dr. E. B. Evans; foreign language instructor, Olivette Higgs; local community and campus physician, Dr. E.R. Owens; U. S. Olympic track coach Hoover Wright; and the legendary “Marching Storm” band director George Edwards have been laid to rest here. Chances are, if you went to Prairie View A&M University anytime after 1960, you are familiar with at least two of these pillars of the local college which sits“on the hill” in the City of Prairie View. But could their “final” resting place be in jeopardy?
Local minister Rev. Walter Pendleton is currently disputing with the Texas A&M University system regarding the ownership of the campus-based cemetery. The minister claims the land in which almost two hundred former campus employees and their families have been interred, was merely offered as a gesture of friendship by his grandfather, George T. Wyatt.
Adjacent to the university maintained cemetery sits the Wyatt Cemetery, a Texas historical site, containing the grave sites of former slaves who were most likely from the local Liendo, Alta Vista and Grace plantations.
Pendleton and many other local Waller County residents are direct descendents of many who are buried in both cemeteries.
Pendleton recently addressed a letter to A&M System employees, demanding the return of the property, and he says he has the ownership deeds to back up his claims. This is not the first cemetery dispute in which the minister has been embroiled. Almost a decade ago, Pendleton filed a federal lawsuit against the nearby city of Hempstead, claiming discrimination in the upkeep of the city’s three cemeteries. The city settled out of court and agreed to bring the local Black cemetery up to par with the much better maintained White and Jewish cemeteries.
This dispute may be more personal. Earlier in the year Pendleton says the university banned him from coming to campus “for life”. The minister has protested at the university’s commencement programs for various reason and for many years, but according to Pendleton, his wife had her employment as a result of her disability, and Pendleton claims it is also a result of his activism.
“Not so,” says university president George Wright. “I think you should contact the local Chief of Police. You will see that is not the case. He was even at the recent commencement,” Wright adds.
“My brother and uncles are buried here,” says Pendleton who still occasionally frequents the site, “and I’m barred from even visiting their graves.” “If I can’t come here, then the system should just return the property to the family which owns it.” He adds, “Just because the state ran a road between the two cemeteries, doesn’t mean they own it. If the road were removed, we’d probably find even more graves of slaves.”
The cemetery has been managed by the university for decades. There is no fee for a burial plot, but those interred must be former employees, or their relatives.
“Look at the fence and the bridge, if you can call it that!” says Pendleton. “If they really thought they owned this property, would they allow a fence to look like that?” “Take a look at the fence they’re building at the local elementary school (which sits on the campus). Waller ISD has paid the A&M System one dollar a year for 50 years. At least they finally got a nice fence. Yet these men and women who gave their lives to building this institution, and who settled their families in the community can’t get a safe bridge to drive across, or a fence without trees growing between it’s chain links. I know I can manage my grandfather’s property better than the system can,” says Rev. Pendleton.
This dispute between the local minister and the Texas A&M University system may just find its way into a federal courtroom, and if history repeats should repeat itself, the peaceful resting places of many, could be very unsettling.
BUT JUST WHO DOES OWN THE CEMETERY?
The old slave-era burial ground bears the name, Wyatt Chapel Community Cemetery. Rev. Pendleton is the great grandson of Texas legislator G.W. Wyatt, the cemetery’s namesake.
“I have uncles and aunts buried on both sides of this road. And I bet if you dig up that road the state put in between the two (properties), you’d find some more of my people.”
Wright was less sure of the ownership. “The better question is, ‘is the university involved in burying people at the cemetery? I’d say no,” says Wright. He then adds, “I’ve never been involved in it, and no one has ever come to me to ask to be buried there.”
This is surely a topic that area residents would love to see, be laid to rest.