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MISSOURI CITY – Leroy Hayes was 7 years old when he started working at his family’s cemetery. It was there that he and his 11 other siblings learned the importance of family.

All his relatives who passed away are buried there. He and his younger sister Dianne can point to the headstones of their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and siblings. And one day, it’s where they will also be laid to rest.

Now at 91, Leroy and Dianne, 72, still maintain the cemetery that has been in their family for generations. It's one of the few cemeteries that are still actively being preserved. 

Statewide, about one-third of cemeteries in Texas have no caregivers or oversight at all, according to the Cemetery Preservation Program at the Texas Historical Commission. Cemeteries across the state that were once run by churches or family members are falling to the wayside as congregations move on and people pass away.

Historically, record keeping on African American cemeteries has been lacking, causing hurdles for researchers and community members who want to protect these burial grounds, said Alan Garcia, cemetery preservation specialist at the Texas Historical Commission. This forces researchers to work backwards and make connections with current descendants to learn more about the past.

While the number of cemeteries being actively cared for is declining, Dianne and Leroy, with help from the Fort Bend County Historical Commission, have worked for years to ensure their family history is preserved.

The Watts Cemetery is tucked away on Watts Plantation Road in Missouri City. Within the last few years Leroy had a dirt path created to allow for easier access to the burial ground.

Together, the siblings pick up fallen branches from the few trees on the land, keep the grass trimmed low, brush dirt off the headstones and fill holes dug up by feral hogs that sneak into the area when no one's watching.

Leroy visits the cemetery every day to make sure things are in order. As Leroy held himself steady on his cane, he became emotional looking at the headstones of passed loved ones.

As the oldest living sibling, he said he owes it to those who’ve passed to make sure they’re taken care of.

“I’m the only one left,” he said. “But I’m still here. And I thank God.”

A connection

The Watts Cemetery was granted to Henry Watts, a free man of color, in 1870, according to documents from the Fort Bend Historical Commission. The cemetery, located in Missouri City, was the final resting place for many of Watts' descendants and became known as the go-to cemetery for Black people in the area. Families who had no connection to the Watts family often asked for permission to bury their loved ones on the land.

Not much is known about the history of the cemetery prior to 1954 by the current living descendants. And while there are headstones on-site with no relation to their family, graves without any markers or headstones also exist on the property.

Oral history is how the family kept their legacy alive. Dianne and Leroy often reminisce about past family members when walking through the cemetery. As she gazes at her mother’s grave, Dianne smiles as she describes the smell of the coconut and pineapple cake her mother used to bake, or the swing she used to play on all day at her grandparents’ house.

The importance of family was ingrained in Dianne and her siblings since she was a little girl. Not through words, but through actions.

“They really didn’t have to say anything. They showed you,” she said. “You see what they were doing.”

Sharon Harris discovered the Watts Cemetery from a neighbor shortly after she moved to Fort Bend County in 2003. The cemetery was located directly across from her subdivision, but back then, tall grass and an obscured pathway prevented her from making her way back to it. That is, until she joined the Fort Bend County Historical Commission’s cemetery committee in 2011.

Honoring her family legacy was a way of life for Harris. Growing up, her family would go twice a year, usually on Easter and Christmas, to put flowers on the headstones of loved ones – a tradition she still practices today. Through her work on the committee, she’s determined to keep a watchful eye on all the cemeteries assigned to her.

“This is somebody's family. This is history in itself,” she said. “It has been enough history that has been overturned and forgotten and not spoken about.”

Dianne was met with some obstacles at first. She recalled someone, who she believes to be a former property owner of the land surrounding the cemetery, asking her to stop tending to the land. She believes they thought because they owned the surrounding land that they also owned the cemetery.

“God, you gotta help me with this,” she recalls praying. “Send me people that can help me, because I don't know what to do.”

Help came through Harris once she was assigned the Watts Cemetery by the commission in 2012. She researched and compiled a report to submit to the Texas Historical Commission in hopes of getting the cemetery a historic designation. The law states that cemeteries cannot be disrupted, but receiving a historical designation would give the land more official protection, she said. While some developers may understand that cemeteries can’t be touched during the development process, Harris worries that some may get “overzealous” and enter into spaces they shouldn’t.

In 2022, the Texas Historical Commission granted the cemetery a certificate of historical designation. Now Harris is working to get a historical marker for the cemetery.

The journey to the cemetery receiving the historical marker and Sharon and Dianne’s dedication to preserving their family history has bonded them. Their relationship over the years has blossomed from acquaintances to something much deeper.

“We’re sisters,” Harris said. “We can talk about anything. And (the cemetery) connecting us is important.”

Dianne Hayes cleans the edges of grave markers at Watts Cemetery, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024, in Missouri City. (Antranik Tavitian / Abdelraoufsinno) Credit: Antranik Tavitian

An ongoing legacy

The success of maintaining a cemetery after all this time lies in what’s taught to the next generation.

Not preserving years-old cemeteries could have consequences beyond just the loss of physical graves and land, said Carlyn Copeland Hammons, cemetery preservation program specialist for the Texas Historical Commission.

“I think it's that sort of erasure of the community connections to it,” Copeland said. “I think stories are in danger of being lost… (and) there is a loss of cultural information that can also happen over time.”

Dianne’s son, Tyrone, remembers the sense of ownership his mother and grandparents instilled in him over the cemetery.

“This is ours. We have to take care of it,” he recalls hearing growing up. “Nobody else is going to take care of it. If we don't, no one else will.”

Tyrone helps around the cemetery about once a month, but said he wishes he could be out there more often. When he does come, he brings his three children to help out. He teaches them to care for the cemetery the same way he was taught growing up — which hasn’t changed much.

They pick up sticks and cut grass. Tyrone’s daughter has even had her turn to run the ride-on lawn mower across the property. He hopes their investment in this land is similar to his.

“I tell (my kids) that our ancestors are buried here. And, and this is where I'll be buried,” he said. “We are blessed to have this place. We're really blessed to have this. Yes, it took a lot of work and a lot of sacrifice. But you know, it's all worth it.”

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Briah Lumpkins is a suburban reporter for the Abdelraoufsinno. She most recently spent a year in Charleston, South Carolina, working as an investigative reporting fellow at The Post and Courier via Frontline...