Com­mu­nity works to clean up historic ceme­tery in Rosen­berg

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - CITY | STATE - By Mar­i­aluisa Rin­con

The long stretch of land flank­ing Blume Road in Rosen­berg eas­ily could be mis­taken as aban­doned or an un­used swath of the ad­ja­cent horse ranch.

But be­hind the crooked, bro­ken wooden fence and 6-foot-high grass sits Byrd Ceme­tery, the rest­ing place of around 200 Rosen­berg res­i­dents — land for­got­ten after years of ne­glect with no mu­nic­i­pal over­sight or in­fra­struc­ture to main­tain it.

The Fort Bend Her­itage So­ci­ety is work­ing to re­turn the historic burial site to its for­mer glory with the help of Christ Church Sugar Land, the Needville Min­is­te­rial Al­liance and other com­mu­nity part­ners.

“We take on the role of keep­ing it clean,” said Fort Bend Her­itage So­ci­ety Vice Pres­i­dent Sha’Terra John­son-Fair­ley, 30. “Hope­fully we can beau­tify it and make it what it should be.”

Around 30 vol­un­teers an­swered John­son-Fair­ley’s call Satur­day to help clear the thick clumps of grass and weeds, fill in sunken grave sites and cut down trees chok­ing sev­eral head­stones from one of the over 60 ne­glected ceme­ter­ies in Fort Bend County.

“It’s been so en­cour­ag­ing,” said Vir­ginia Mor­ri­son, 83, a vol­un­teer from Christ Church. “We mowed this place two years ago and two years be­fore that, but now we have a lot of peo­ple here at once to help.”

The deed for the land is held by the de­scen­dants of Ed­ward Bird, a Mis­sis­sippi-born farmer who moved to Texas in the early 1900s. But for decades, a lack of

spon­sors led to a lack of ef­fort to main­tain the prop­erty or pre­serve the al­most cen­tury-old graves in it.

“But now we have a good hold of com­mu­nity stake­hold­ers that want it to be main­tained,” John­son-Fair­ley said. “We don’t want it to get back to this point.”

The 2 acres that be­came the Rosen­berg Col­ored Ceme­tery were sold as part of a 28-acre par­cel to Bird in 1923, ac­cord­ing to Fort Bend County his­tor­i­cal records. An un­known num­ber of freed slaves are buried on the prop­erty. Clear­ing graves

The ceme­tery has changed names at least three times since the first per­son, Per­net­tie Bird — Ed­ward Bird’s rel­a­tive of un­cer­tain re­la­tion — was laid to rest there in 1927. At some point, the Rosen­berg Col­ored Ceme­tery be­came the Byrd Ceme­tery or Bird Ceme­tery. It’s of­fi­cially called the Rosen­berg Ceme­tery.

The ex­act num­ber of peo­ple buried at Byrd has been lost to time — it’s 196 to over 230, de­pend­ing on the record keeper — and the shoul­der-high bushes and grass cov­er­ing al­most all of the ceme­tery make at­tempts to count the graves fu­tile.

What is known, John­son-Fair­ley said, is that the last group of buri­als hap­pened in the 1960s, with a smat­ter­ing of in­ter­ments in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. The new­est grave­stone is dated 1993, but Byrd Ceme­tery is no longer an ac­tive burial site.

Satur­day’s event, she said, helped clear the graves of the 24 known World War I and World War II veterans buried at the site. Tram­pled, faded red, white and blue flags mark where they are buried.

“We have sev­eral veterans buried here. Today we also want to rec­og­nize all they did for the com­mu­nity and the coun­try,” John­son-Fair­ley said.

Hopie Solomon called her nephew Hol­lis Giles, 55, Fri­day night when she heard there was a group head­ing out to clear the ceme­tery. Giles’ un­cle, Bubba Franks — Solomon’s brother — was buried there, and she wanted him to clear the plants off his grave.

“I knew the ceme­tery had got­ten bad,” Giles said solemnly, look­ing out at the thick brush ren­der­ing the back acre and a half im­pass­able with­out a weed eater. “I didn’t know it’d got­ten like this.” Mak­ing dis­cov­er­ies

Byrd Ceme­tery was never di­vided into a grid or plots, and the only di­rec­tional fea­ture is the graves fac­ing east.

The re­sult is a hodge­podge of flat grave­stones and tilted — or buried — head­stones sink­ing into the soft ground.

Most fam­i­lies buried there, how­ever, grouped their mem­bers into the same gen­eral area. Bubba’s grave­stone, Giles said, is some­where in the 4 feet of tan­gled, thorny bush be­tween his un­cle John “Big Six” Franks and his nephew Danny Wayne.

Solomon called Giles again at the gravesite. He’d found the gen­eral area where the grave was, he told her, but he was late for work at a lo­cal re­mod­el­ing busi­ness and would come back later in the af­ter­noon to make a suit­able place for her to visit her brother.

“We’re go­ing to dis­cover all kinds of stuff here,” Giles said.

It’s slow, te­dious work that can be done only in the south­east Texas au­tumn, when the mid­day sun isn’t blis­ter­ing and the hu­mid air dries out. Once cut down to a man­age­able height, the swamp grass needs to be mowed by hand, as rid­ing a lawn mower runs the risk of knock­ing over a hid­den grave­stone or fall­ing into a ditch sunken in by years of heavy rain­storms. ‘We’re all a part of this’

But the work, John­son-Fair­ley said, is re­ward­ing for a com­mu­nity with roots in Rosen­berg as deep as this one. The Her­itage So­ci­ety is aim­ing to raise the in­volve­ment of the com­mu­nity in the ceme­tery’s main­te­nance — dozens of present-day Rosen­berg res­i­dents have an­ces­tors buried at Byrd Ceme­tery.

“It’s our re­spon­si­bil­ity as com­mu­nity mem­bers to main­tain and pre­serve these lega­cies,” John­sonFair­ley said. “We’re all a part of this, and peo­ple should take pride in peo­ple that came be­fore us.”

An­nie Mul­li­gan

Steve Smith clears weeds from gravesites in the Byrd Ceme­tery on Satur­day in Rosen­berg. Smith at­tends Christ Church Sugar Land, which teamed up with the Fort Bend Her­itage So­ci­ety and the Needville Min­is­te­rial Al­liance to main­tain the ceme­tery four years ago.

An­nie Mul­li­gan pho­tos

Lan­nis John­son, left, and Vir­ginia Mor­ri­son un­earth a head­stone on Satur­day at Byrd Ceme­tery in Rosen­berg. The event cleared 24 graves of veterans from the world wars.

Jamie Wil­liams re­paints an old fence at Byrd Ceme­tery. Wil­liams, a mem­ber of the Fort Bend Her­itage So­ci­ety, has rel­a­tives buried in the com­mu­nity ceme­tery.

Vir­ginia Mor­ri­son joins hands with other mem­bers of the com­mu­nity dur­ing a prayer of thanks for the veterans and history buried in Byrd Ceme­tery.

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