Long-standing concerns continue over maintenance of city-owned, historically Black cemetery in Hempstead

HEMPSTEAD, Texas – Long-standing concerns over the maintenance of a city-owned, historically Black cemetery in Hempstead have reignited a debate over racial equity when it comes to municipal resting places.

“It is not equitably kept up,” said Dr. Walter Pendleton, touring a field of headstones and history at Hempstead Oakwood Cemetery, one of two historically Black cemeteries owned by the city. 

Burials at the site date back to the early 20th century.

The city of Hempstead owns and operates four municipal cemeteries: Hempstead Cemetery, Hempstead Jewish Cemetery, Hempstead Houston Cemetery, and Hempstead Oakwood Cemetery. 

The latter two historically served as resting spaces for Black residents and were once legally segregated. While that’s no longer the case, Pendleton and others argue they have not been maintained as well as Hempstead Cemetery and Hempstead Jewish Cemetery.

Drainage concerns, a lack of fencing around the site, and a lack of lighting are three reasons why the cemetery needs attention, according to DeWayne Charleston, a Hempstead resident,

“You can see how this is flooded right here,” Charleston said, referring to waterlogged patches throughout the site. 

While heavy storms have made for saturated grounds throughout southeast Texas, Charleston, Pendleton -- others said flooding at Oakwood is bad because there isn’t a drainage system and nowhere for the water to go.

Charleston said that’s resulted in sinking headstones and a growing need for repairs and upgrades.

Pendleton agreed as he discussed the many families buried at Oakwood and their significance to the region’s history. He then stopped at a near-perfect rectangle of soil, marked by a temporary placard that read, “Worley.”

“These are the Flowers,” he said before explaining why his family would have preferred to bury Worley T. Flowers, his brother-in-law, at Hempstead Jewish Cemetery.

Flowers, one of Waller County’s first Black sheriff’s deputies, died on May 2.

“He was outstanding. He retired from this community,” Pendleton said.

He said the family did not want to bury him in Oakwood, despite its history, because they said the conditions at the cemetery were unfavorable and unfair. He said he contacted the city’s mayor to purchase a plot, but was told he could not.

“We were told he couldn’t be buried there because he is not Hebrew,” Pendleton said, referring to Judaism. 

When asked who told him so, Pendleton replied, “the mayor.”

But Mayor Dave Shelburne maintained Hempstead Jewish Cemetery, technically, is closed and has been since 1966, when the city purchased a deed to assume ownership of the site. Shelburne said few burials take place at the site and those that do are relatives of families who were there before the city assumed control.  Shelburne continued that the city’s stance wasn’t racial and that the selling of plots at the site stopped when the city purchased the deed to own the cemetery.

But Dr. Walter Pendleton and DeWayne Charleston argued residents pay taxes to fund municipal cemeteries and as such, they should equitably be maintained.

Conditions of a settlement from a federal lawsuit filed in 2003 agreed with that sentiment, requiring the City of Hempstead to maintain Hempstead Oakwood and Hempstead Houston as city-owned cemeteries.

Mayor Shelburne said the city does maintain each of its cemeteries equally.

However, Dr. Pendleton said conditions speak for themselves, prompting him to explore his legal options once more.

“We’re here to try to write those wrongs,” he said.

About the Author:

Emmy and Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist. NOLA born and bred, though #HoustonStrong, with stops in Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut in along the way.