The historic Oakwood Cemetery Chapel suffered from uneven foundation settlement and deferred maintenance. During the rehabilitation of the Chapel in 2016, archeologists monitoring construction discovered human remains below where the chapel was built. The rehabilitation of the Chapel is complete, reinterment of the displaced remains was completed in the fall of 2021, and further DNA and isotopic analysis of the remains is ongoing. District 1
The historic Oakwood Cemetery Chapel was constructed in 1914 to function as a mortuary chapel. Designed by Austin architect, Charles Page, the historic Gothic-revival chapel is located within Oakwood Cemetery, a City of Austin Historic Landmark, registered Historic Texas Cemetery, and a National Register of Historic Places site. In the century since its construction, the historic building suffered from uneven foundation settlement and deferred maintenance.
In 2016, during the rehabilitation of the Oakwood Cemetery Chapel, archeologists monitoring construction discovered human remains below where the chapel was built. Careful exhumation of these rediscovered individuals proceeded, and, under the Antiquities permit obtained by the Texas Historical Commission, the remains were transferred to bio-archeologists at Texas State University. Archeologists performed an analysis of the physical remains, which has the potential to provide demographic data, including race and ethnicity, gender, and approximate age. In some cases, physical remains can also inform about the cause of death and aspects of lifestyle, such as physical health, levels of nutrition, or stresses endured. Further, artifacts may reveal aspects of material culture and possibly the cultural significance of those buried in this section. The process does not provide information about the individual identities of the people who were discovered.
The analysis of the remains, which date to the mid to late 1800s, is complete and the report is below. The report was developed by the archeological contractor for the Oakwood Chapel project, Hicks & Company Environmental/Archeological Consultants, and their sub-consultant, the Forensic Anthropology at Texas State University. The reports were also reviewed by the Texas Historical Commission.
- Volume 1: Oakwood Cemetery Archeological Monitoring and Exhumation Report (PDF, 13 MB)
- Volume 2: Oakwood Cemetery Bio-archeological Report (PDF, 1 MB)
Rehabilitation of the Chapel was completed in August 2018. The project included:
- Structural stabilization of the foundation
- Surface drainage improvements
- ADA site access improvements, including the creation of one parking space behind the Chapel and a new sidewalk
- Rehabilitation of single unisex restroom
- Mechanical, electrical, lighting overhaul
- Restoration of interior and exterior finishes, including doors, windows, masonry, roof, plaster, etc.
An area near the chapel was identified as a potential location for reinterment. This location aligned with a recommendation from the 2017 community engagement process. On November 16, 2021, under careful monitoring by archeologists, mechanical scraping of the ground surface confirmed the selected sites are devoid of unmarked burials.
The team prioritized careful reinterment of the individuals in a respectful and protective environment. On November 17, 2021, PARD successfully reinterred all 36 displaced individuals at Oakwood Cemetery.
In late May 2023, PARD hosted All Together Here: Monument Dedication and Memorial Event, a three-day series of events and programs centered around the dedication for a permanent monument to the individuals who were discovered during the Oakwood Chapel restoration. The events included guided tours of the Historic Colored Grounds and the Oakwood Chapel, a talk by a historian, a racial healing event, a dedication of the monuments, a walking procession, and a homegoing celebration. The May event was part of continued programming the Department has led as part of the archeological and memorialization process associated with the Oakwood Chapel.
- DNA Analysis
The Department notified City Council in a June 18, 2020 memo about an academic partnership with the University of Connecticut and the University of Texas to undertake DNA analysis, at no cost to the City of Austin, to better understand the lives of the men, women, and children who were discovered. The DNA analysis is underway following the issuance of an Antiquities Permit from the Texas Historical Commission in the late fall of 2020. The analysis of DNA from the people who were exhumed offers a unique opportunity to learn more about their identities, familial connections, and life experiences.
If the preservation of the DNA in the Oakwood Cemetery remains is sufficient to permit these analyses, living individuals who think they may have a familial connection may be able to submit a saliva sample to the University of Connecticut lab for DNA analysis, allowing relatedness to be assessed. As soon as feasible, PARD will provide further details to community members on how they may work directly with the University of Connecticut research team to explore whether they have a family relation to any of the exhumed individuals. The DNA extractions process is now complete, and the DNA analysis of the individuals who were exhumed during the chapel restoration continues
The analysis component is a lengthy and complex process and may take more than 36 months. Additionally, the team is undertaking isotopic analysis in conjunction with the DNA analysis, which may provide additional insights into the diets and regions of origin of the individuals.
This schedule is projected as accurately as possible and subject to change
- 2018: Rehabilitation of Oakwood Chapel and reopening to the public (Complete)
- 2021: Reinterment of displaced individuals (Complete)
- 2022 to 2025: DNA analysis (Ongoing)
- 2025: Final report published
Community Update (Virtual)
Tuesday, September 19, 2023, 6 to 7 p.m.
The Austin Parks and Recreation Department will host this virtual community meeting that will features members of the Oakwood Cemetery archeological project team from the University of Connecticut and the University of Texas at Austin. The research team will update the community about the work completed to date and share next steps in the DNA and isotopic testing analysis.
Chapel Rehabilitation Project
Oakwood Cemetery Chapel: Community Engagement Report (PDF)
Meetings and Events
All Together Here Symposium and Exhibit
October 9-10, 2022
As part of the educational outreach for the Oakwood Chapel archeological project, PARD produced All Together Here: A Community Symposium for Discovery and Remembrance, a free online two-day symposium held in October 2020 for more than 300 registrants. The symposium featured sessions from 40 nationally renowned archeologists, anthropologists, historians, and community activists about the archeological findings and comparative projects from around the country, and they further engaged the community in ideas for the memorialization of the people who were found. The symposium sessions are featured online on PARD’s YouTube Channel. PARD has also produced the All Together Here online exhibit about the archeological and bio-archeological findings.
- All Together Here: A Community Symposium for Discovery and Remembrance Press Release (PDF)
- All Together Here: A Community Symposium, October 9-10, 2020 link with video recordings of the symposium
- All Together Here: Online Exhibit
Blessing and Commemoration
November 29, 2021
The Oakwood Cemetery Chapel hosted Interfaith Action of Central Texas to conduct a blessing for the reburial of the men, women, and children found during the Chapel’s rehabilitation. The service featured:
- Simone Talma Flowers, Executive Director, Interfaith Action of Central Texas
- Fr. Larry Covington, St. Theresa Catholic Church
- Rev. Daryl Horton, Mt. Zion Baptist Church
- Alan Garcia, accordion
- Javier Jara, guitar
The program was held outdoors in front of the Oakwood Cemetery Chapel and can be viewed online here. A larger public memorial service will be held in 2022 after monument materials can be secured. Current supply chain issues are limiting the availability of materials.
Memos and Reports to Mayor and Council
- Mar. 6, 2017: Oakwood Chapel Rehabilitation Project and Archeological Investigation (PDF)
- Apr. 27, 2017: Oakwood Chapel Rehabilitation Project and Archeological Investigation Staff Report and Recommendation for Discovered Burials (PDF)
- May 1, 2017: Oakwood Chapel Rehabilitation Project and Archeological Findings (PDF)
- Dec. 13, 2019: Project Update (PDF)
- Feb. 5, 2020: Memoranda sent to Historic Landmark Commission, African American Resource Advisory Council, Human Rights Commission, and Parks and Recreation Board (PDFs)
- May 14, 2020: Project Update regarding the release of final reports (PDFs)
- June 18, 2020: Oakwood Cemetery Academic Partnership for DNA testing (PDF)
- Feb. 2, 2021: Project Update (PDF)
- Nov. 10, 2021: Project Update (PDF)
- Dec. 15, 2021: Project Update (PDF)
- April 5, 2023: Project Update (PDF)
- August 24, 2023: Project Update
Funding and Resources
This project was funded by the 2012 GO Bond and through the Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) as defined under Chapter 351 of the Texas Tax Code. HOT revenue is an essential tool for the promotion of tourism and supports the growth of the tourism, convention, and hotel industry. PARD is an important partner in this effort as public parks, museums, and cultural centers are among the top tourist attractions in the City.
For more information about this project, contact Kim McKnight, Project Manager, by at HistoricAustinParks@austintexas.gov or by phone at (512) 974-9506.