PRESERVING THE PAST
Community works to clean up historic cemetery in Rosenberg
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.”
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.
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.