Kendleton graves

Former U.S. Rep. Pete Olson and Nick Landoski view some of the old gravestones out at Bates Allen Park.

A single, worn sign reading “grave site” is the only indication to visitors of Kendleton’s Bates Allen Park that they’re mere feet away from the final resting place of the only Black man nominated to be Texas’ Speaker of the House.

Benjamin Franklin Williams led an esteemed life – a Republican lawmaker who served three terms in the Texas Legislature and was one of the founders of the freedmen’s community in Kendleton.

Kendleton was founded as a freedom colony by emancipated slaves in the 19th century, according to a 2013 Houston Chronicle article.

But as much as Williams’ final resting place belies the importance of the man, his grave is in comparatively better shape than those just a stone’s throw away in Oak Hill Cemetery. A road sign notes the presence of the cemetery, but a literal forest has grown up around the 4 acres of markers, some of them containing people born as early as 1827.

“Gone, but not forgotten,” many of the grave markers read.

That’s not quite true, said Nick Landoski, a Fort Bend County resident, during a recent visit to the site.

Former U.S. Rep. Pete Olson recently read about Williams’ life, learned he’d been buried in Fort Bend County and made the visit out to Bates Allen Park.

“I drove down to Kendleton this morning to pay my respects to this Texas hero,” Olson said. “I left upset and angry.”

Olson said the lack of historical designation or marker, along with the general disrepair of the site, upset him.

“You have to walk through grass, weeds and mud to get to Mr. Williams’ grave,” he said. “There are no fences or barriers to keep the feral pigs or fire ants away. I had to pull a mass of grass and dead weeds away just to see the words ‘Benjamin Williams’ on his tombstone.”

Sha’Terra Johnson, the vice president of the Fort Bend Black Heritage Society, said she’d known about Williams for some time, but hadn’t been able to find his grave until Olson posted about it on social media.

“I’d been looking on the wrong side of the park,” she said. “We also weren’t aware the grave site was in the condition that it’s in.”

Olson and Landoski are now on a mission to recognize Williams and those buried at the nearby Oak Hill Cemetery.

“He will be honored as his life deserves,” Olson said. “The wheels of change are beginning to turn.”

As February’s Black History Month winds to a close, the story of Williams and Oak Hill Cemetery in Kendleton are both signs of a larger trend across the county, state and country – despite the fact that some local figures played outsized roles in the community’s history, their memory hasn’t been preserved as much as others.

“These stories need to be told,” said Sam Collins III, an historian who serves on several boards, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “Many times, people think about being the first to do something. But during Reconstruction, Fort Bend County has the first Black sheriff in the entire country elected. All law enforcement should celebrate that history in Texas. But history is a two-sided coin. Despite all the accomplishments and achievements during Reconstruction, the fact that society fought so hard to reverse that advancement is problematic. That’s what people don’t necessarily want to expose right now. They don’t want to talk about it.”

Olson largely agreed with Collins’ sentiment. Slavery and racism aren’t topics people like to discuss, which means sometimes the contributions of Black Americans in this country remain underappreciated, Olson said.

Naomi Carrier, the founder and executive director of the Texas Center for African American Living History, said last week that the issue of African-American burial sites has been on her radar for some time.

“The Legislature has talked about a bill on the preservation of African-American burial grounds,” she said.

The U.S. Senate, for instance, in 2020 passed a bipartisan bill that would have set up a voluntary, nationwide network of African American burial grounds and provided some assistance to ensure they are maintained for future generations, according to a news release from U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio.

The measure hasn’t advanced in the U.S. House, records show.

The issue of preserving Williams’ grave along with those buried at Oak Hill Cemetery is of particular importance to Carrier, whose parents first met in Kendleton, she said.

Carrier would like to one day see the sites receive state historical markers, she said.

To do that, someone would have to submit an application for a historical marker, first to the county historical commission, and later to the state.

There is conflicting information about who owns the land that Oak Hill Cemetery sits on. A list of cemeteries in the county mentions that it is on private land, while another page doesn’t mention anything about it being on private property, according to Waymarking, a website for historic cemeteries.

In the interim, Olson and Landoski are contemplating asking the Boy Scouts of America, or another nonprofit organization, to gather volunteers to visit the cemetery and clean up the grave sites, they said.

Johnson said she hoped to recruit volunteers in coming weeks to go out and clean the area, but would likely need to seek the county’s permission before doing so, she said.

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