This is one of an occasional series of reports on people, events and places in Marion County’s past.
By BOB PALMER
Jimplecute News Editor
JEFFERSON – Drive down the street from the gate entering Oakwood Cemetery. Although graceful magnolia trees shade much of the way, most will think it too hot to walk on one of the longest days of the year.
When the street ends, you can see ahead of you and to your left what some call “free ground,” or to borrow the ancient English name, “potter’s field.”
This is where 150 years ago, Jefferson buried poor whites and blacks who were often ex-slaves.
Ida Robinson and Mary Humphrey have taken up the task of naming the perhaps more than 1,500 people buried there. Robinson was unavailable on the day of this interview. In the 1850s, the graves located near where the water tower stands and Union Church were relocated to Oakwood.
About 20 years later, the community began to keep up with who was buried there.“The city required the sexton to record the names of those buried in free ground starting in 1871,” Humphrey said. “In 1902, the city organized Cedar Grove and the blacks were buried there.”
The city kept diligent records. “We have their names, when they died and how they died,” Humphrey said, “both black and white. These records have been in City Hall since 1871.” Humphrey and Robinson found the folded documents in a City Hall closet.
The map was on a piece of linen. Many of the sheets of paper replete with names and dates had deteriorated. The city has ordered plastic envelopes to protect the material. The goal according to Humphrey is to receive a Texas Historical Commission plaque. “It’s called an untold story plaque,” Humphrey said.
“We want a marker so these people are not forgotten. We have their names and why they died and when they died. Most potter’s fields don’t have that. Families researching their history need to know.”
Local author and historian Mitchel Whitington has applied for the marker. What the women have already learned about potter’s field could fill several books. Mike Patrick, 25, is among those who lie there. He was shot to death on June 18, 1871.
Patrick was not the only one to die of violence according to the 1871 records. “Buried in free ground are those who died of hanging, drowning and shootings,” Humphrey said. “Half of them were children and adults dying of diseases we no longer have like typhoid fever, tuberculosis and a lot of the names you have to Google to find out what they are.”
Another group was buried in potter’s field. “They would not bury the Union soldiers where the good white folks were,” Humphrey said. “They are set over in a section of that free ground.”
While you can still find the clearly marked graves of the Union soldiers, most of the rest are gone. “In the 1950s, A.C. Meyers had potter’s field bulldozed to make it level so it could be mowed,” Humphrey said. “Everything was pushed over in northeast corner. They were homemade grave sites with rocks and glass.”
Marcia Thomas and Ed Joseph told Humphrey they remembered when these graves were known by the families. “You can’t tell where the graves are except where the 12 markers are that weren’t bulldozed,” Humphrey said. “Jim Gill’s marker is still standing. He was a carpenter. The city paid him to make the caskets for potter’s field.”
Also buried in free ground are Jim and Patsy. They came to Marion County along with their sons, George and Ben as the slaves of Bartholomew Figures. “When the war was over, they were freed,” Humphrey said. “Descendants of Patsy and Jim still live here. Patsy is buried in the free ground and probably Jim. He disappeared off the roles before 1870.”
Many of their grandchildren are buried in free ground. “When they were freed, they took the name Figures. The old ones, when I talked to them back in the 1970s, knew they had gotten their name from a white man,” Humphrey said.
“They bought land on Farris Street, which some of the family still owns.”Ben and George were draymen. They drove the wagons, helping with the hard work of building Jefferson, Humphrey related.Working with the cemetery records has given Humphrey a glimpse of life in Jefferson 150 years ago. “It was tough,” she said.
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