By Desiree Johnson
Killeen Daily Herald
TEMPLE – For years the Seven Star Cemetery was ignored, unclaimed by anyone until a small group of people decided to take responsibility for a place that holds forgotten souls and lost history.
Bishop J.A. Tolbert, a pastor at Eagles Wings Ministries in Temple, has been working with the Central Texas Juneteenth Committee to save the narrow stretch of land that lies along 14th Street.
Before he began, the plot of land was overgrown with tall grass, abandoned for years. Now cut and clean, the Seven Star Cemetery showcases graves that whisper stories from history that otherwise would have been lost.
Getting to this point has been a struggle for Tolbert and the Juneteenth Committee. First, the group needed to figure out who owned the property, a question that remains unanswered.
"The Hillcrest Cemetery had all the information on the land and a map of the graves and everything, but they refused to claim it," Tolbert said. "We think it was once owned by the Mississippi/Kansas/Texas railroad commission, but they've given it up, too. The city of Temple didn't want it either."
Tolbert has not been able to find the deed to the land.
Since no one was willing to claim the land, the Juneteenth committee decided to seek legal ownership.
"It's been a real struggle. The city has said it's ours, but we really want a paper trail," Tolbert said. "The city is hesitant to give it to a volunteer group because of a lack of permanency. They want the land linked through a committee that has no chance of going away."
After getting unofficial rights to the land, the group volunteered its time to cleaning up the area, repainting old graves and figuring out where old grave markers belonged.
"We needed a lot of help clearing out the grass and brush that we had cut down, and we requested some equipment from the city for help," Tolbert said. "The city refused to pick up debris because they said there was no water meter on the property.
"Of course, once we finished everything, everyone wanted to be there. The mayor, City Council members – all sorts of important people – were here at the unveiling of the new memorabilia marker."
The unveiling of the new memorial marker was June 23.
While cleaning up, the committee discovered many untold stories that came with the cemetery.
Among the distinguishable graves lie multiple rows of unknown graves, each marked with a cement block. Because of the dates on the graves surrounding these – the oldest having a birth date of 1870 – the group can make educated guesses about the history behind the unmarked graves.
Because Texas slaves weren't freed by the Emancipation Proclamation because of the slow rate of news travel until around 1865, it's safe to assume that some of the unmarked graves were former slaves, Tolbert said.
Some of the unknown graves also are assumed to be former railroad workers, since that stretch of railroad would have been laid down around the same time as some of the corresponding marked graves.
"African-American slaves and African-Americans were buried next to railroad tracks before they could be buried in cemeteries," Tolbert said.
The marked graves have their own stories to tell.
"There are a few family plots that have children buried close by. Most children died because people back then didn't know about diets, diseases, et cetera," Tolbert said. "The children who survived had to be physically strong.
"The houses had no proper ventilation, too. They were built to keep the cold out, but what they didn't realize was that they were keeping the bacteria in."
One of the graves that stands out to passers-by is that of a black soldier.
"It's surprising because black soldiers were not awarded the same honors as white soldiers back then – it was not important that they died," Tolbert said. "This soldier must have done something truly amazing to have his body sent back home. There are so few black heroes of war simply because their stories are not recorded."
Testament to struggle
Since most of the bodies buried were either slaves or direct descendants of slaves having their first taste of freedom, the cemetery has become a testament to the black struggle for freedom in America.
"It's different for us today because we were born free, and we'll fight for that freedom, but back then slavery is just how they saw themselves," Tolbert said. "God must have put the desire to be free and the idea into their minds, since the entire world was telling them they were slaves, and they had to fight for it.
"It's like the quote from revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata that said, I would rather die on my feet, than live on my knees.'"
This is part of the reason the land is named Seven Star Cemetery.
"The star stands for the seven points of freedom on the Underground Railroad," Tolbert said. "The North Star was the principle star, and we think the last star stands for the ultimate freedom. When slaves would travel on the Underground, they at least knew what direction to go next, based on the placement of the constellations."
While the Seven Star Cemetery holds a plethora of information waiting to be discovered, the struggle for the respect of the piece of land is ongoing for the Juneteenth committee.
Each time Tolbert tours the area, he said something is out of place, and the cemetery has been vandalized many times.
"Sometimes, kids come by and move some of the old tin markers with important information on them to the unknown graves," Tolbert said. "We had to paint the name of the cemetery on the bricks because people kept coming by and tearing off the plastic ones we put up."
Despite the struggle, the importance of preserving history and the need to respect the bodies that lie there keep those dedicated to the cemetery working on the project.
"At the dedication, we had a flag donated to us that flew on the State Capitol and another that flew on the U.S. Capitol on Juneteenth (June 19)," Tolbert said.
"Having those is a way to bring these souls to a place I'm sure they never thought they would come. We're saying to them, We deem you citizens, you are no longer cattle.'
"It's more than just reclaiming the land and cutting the grass. Our history is inexorably tied to our present. If we don't know the yesterday, how are we going to find tomorrow?"
Phyllis Jones, Killeen NAACP first vice president, also is interested in preserving the cemetery's history.
"Something like this is important because it's a piece of history lost. If we keep losing history, we won't have any anymore," Jones said.
April Noronh, another longtime Killeen resident who has toured the cemetery, commented on how the work that has been put into the cemetery honors the memories of those who seemed to be forgotten.
"Over time our stories get diffused, and this is a way to keep a piece of history recorded physically," Noronha said. "The unknown are not forgotten here due to the amount of work that's been put into this place."
Contact Desiree Johnson at email@example.com or call 501-7559