After a half-century of neglect, the city government is moving toward formal recognition of those who bridged the period between the Civil War and the modern civil rights era. A three-year archaeological investigation found 40 unmarked graves, the city announced last week, as well as 25 sites detailing life in the neighborhood known as The Fort or Seminary.
A handsome brochure was published two months ago, oral histories have been collected and posted online, and a new series of historical markers that tell the African American story is expected to be erected within weeks. The creation of a plan to control the future of the park is next on the city’s agenda.
Residents, many of whom are descendants of the original homeowners, pushed for the investigation and want preservation and recognition. But they remain suspicious and wary. Take the issue of how many graves are in the park; the city says there are 43 while residents say there are far more, although even they are not sure of the number.
“They’re picking up what they want to pick up,” said Frances Terrell, one of the descendants, as she walked through what used to be a city maintenance yard surrounding the gravestone of one of the most prominent residents. “They don’t want to find graves —”
“African American graves,” said fellow civic activist Lena Rainey.
“ — desecrating their park,” Terrell added.
From the 1880s almost until the city bought out the last African American families in 1960, people buried their dead behind their Fort Ward Park homes, sometimes in unmarked plots. One family, the Jacksons, set up a private cemetery for their family members and others, although no markers remain.
Another cemetery is owned and maintained by Oakland Baptist Church, which was founded by black families in the area. But the oldest residents say that the graveyard used to be much bigger than it is now and that they suspect many graves are outside the small fenced property.
City officials said they had already begun work on reclaiming the history of the residents of The Fort in 2008, when Glenn Eugster began to complain about the dumpsters the city was storing — without permits — in the park, adjacent to his home. The dumpsters and city maintenance trucks, it turned out, were parked on and around some of the graves.
Eugster, a retiree from the National Park Service and the Environmental Protection Agency, armed himself with a camera and documented city mulch piles stored on top of graves, and broken and missing headstones, which he blames on city workers. He uncovered a 1962 city document showing grave sites, plans he said officials had forgotten or overlooked.