Fort Bend County embarks on park, memorial to Black residents

This architectural rendering by Daimian Hines of the Houston firm Hines Architecture+Design shows an initial design for the expanded Bates M. Allen Park.

After recent approval by Fort Bend commissioners, work will soon begin on the $4 million development of an expanded Bates M. Allen Park which will include a memorial to honor the contributions of African-Americans to the county in Kendleton, a historically Black community.

Kendleton was founded shortly after the end of the Civil War by formerly enslaved people and quickly became one of the most prominent African-American communities in Southeast Texas, according to Fort Bend Precinct 4 Commissioner Dexter McCoy.

The expanded Bates M. Allen Park will encompass the Newman Chapel and Oak Hill cemeteries, long-important landmarks in Kendleton.

Among the people interred at Newman Chapel Cemetery is Benjamin Franklin Williams, a Republican lawmaker during the Reconstruction Era and the only Black man ever nominated to be Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives, and Walter Moses Burton, the first Black sheriff in U.S. history.

McCoy, who is Black, took office in January after defeating his predecessor, Ken DeMerchant, in the Democratic primary and then winning in the general election in November. DeMarchant had already begun working on the idea of creating the new park, McCoy said, and he decided to take the project on after taking office.

But the ball really got rolling under the leadership of former U.S. Pete Olson of Sugar Land, who along with fellow members of  the Exchange Club of Sugar Land and some other area service clubs decided to address the dilapidated conditions of many of the gravesites in the two cemeteries. Fort Bend County had purchased the property on which the cemeteries are located many years ago, as previously reported by the Fort Bend Star.

As Olson has told the Star, he had read up on the history of Williams and decided to pay a visit to the grave of a man he considers "a Texas hero." But once he saw the unkempt state of the two overgrown cemeteries, he grew angry and began the push to help restore them to some semblance of their former glory.

The Exchange Club, along with other service organizations, Boy Scout troops and the like have since held frequent clean-up events at the two sites.

But the lack of connection between the two cemeteries other than a rudimentary trial led to Olson, DeMerchant and his successor McCoy to push for a more comprehensive park design, including a permanent memorial honoring Black residents of Fort Bend, which Commissioners Court approved earlier this year.

The county funding will come from the current parks bond program, but the entire project will also be funded through outside grants and other private contributions, McCoy said.

Initial designs of the park have already been developed by Daimian Hines of the Houston-based Hines Architecture + Design Frim, whose projects include the Jamaica House of Parliament and Maritime Museum in Harlem, New York. The initial renderings feature a landscaped trail system connecting the two cemeteries, a small lake, and a permanent, sculptural monument.

In the months ahead, there will be public meetings to seek input on the project. Actual work on the project is expected to begin next year, McCoy said.

The commissioner said the proposed park will be a long-overdue homage to the contributions of African-Americans to Fort Bend County, but also a way for people of all backgrounds to learn about this important part of the county's history.

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