Take your time at Texas State Cemetery, where history is written in marble
A crowd of perhaps 100 people gathered near the coffin on a mild spring day. Friends, family and clergy spoke briefly and read from scripture.
Before and after the graveside memorial for legendary public relations lion Julian Read — advisor to six presidents — at the Texas State Cemetery, admirers, clad in dark hues, mixed among the marble and granite monuments that bedeck Republic Hill, where some of the state's founders are buried.
Read, who died May 8 at age 93 after a full life, had witnessed Texas history.
Across a dinner table, he could recount details about the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas — he was the first spokesman to explain to the press what happened in the presidential limousine. Over lunch, Read could regale you with perfectly polished anecdotes about governors, legislators and civic leaders, or chat about the finer points of midcentury modern design.
As I turned to leave the memorial, I wandered deeper into the sea of gravestones. Everywhere I turned was some famous Texan, from José Antonio Navarro to Barbara Jordan, from Stephen F. Austin to Chris Kyle. Up the hill from Read was his old boss, John B. Connally, governor of Texas and later secretary of the treasury and a presidential candidate.
Under the tall trees that shade the manicured gardens and the glorious monuments, one could learn a lot about Texas history. And Texas schoolchildren — who generally study their state's history in the fourth and seventh grades — do come here by the busload.
Yet I'm willing to bet that a tiny minority of all Texans have visited this beautiful site, which is closed briefly to tourists during active funerals — those occur about once a week — and, at least during the pandemic, weekends.
Return to the Texas State Cemetery
I was determined to return and take my time. I prepared by rereading "Texas State Cemetery," the fine history written by Will Erwin and Jason Walker with Helen Thompson and adorned with impressive photos by Laurence Parent. It should rest on every serious Texas bookshelf.
Rain threatened at 8 a.m. on May 24 when I returned. I lingered at the visitor center, made of megalithic limestone in an homage to the Alamo. The permanent display there tells almost all you need to know about the background of the cemetery, but be sure to pick up a folded map and walking-tour guide at the front desk. An audio option is available.
I also enjoyed the advice of senior historian Will Erwin and administrator Nathan Stephens. They explained a new section near the visitor center reserved for the transfer of many of the cemetery's cenotaphs — monuments to Texans buried elsewhere — and how small plaques explain who is buried in each columbarium, two monumental stone structures set aside for cremated Texans on either side of the rose gate at the East 11th Street entrance.
Among those Texas heroes honored at the cemetery — but whose remains are buried elsewhere — are novelist James Michener, football coach Tom Landry, Alamo survivor Susanna Dickinson and heart surgeon Denton Cooley.
They didn't need to tell me about Texas 165, which bisects the cemetery. Historian Louis Kemp, one of the saviors of this sacred spot, lobbied to have this street, just a few blocks long, designated as a state highway. Sixty years later, Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, another champion of the cemetery, leveraged federal money to redevelop the grounds by using Texas 165 as a funding wedge.
Making the rounds
It was time to walk around this outdoor museum. Almost immediately, I realized that the tour could take up most of a morning. So I planned to split my "Think, Texas" column into two parts to run on consecutive weeks, the first focused on the oldest graves, the second about the most recent.
I headed first to the two sections of Statesman Meadow, a low rise in the cemetery's southwest sector near a lovely flowing pond. Here I found Longhorn legend Darrell K. Royal, famed Navy SEAL Chris Kyle and Willie Wells, the Negro League big gun and Austin's only native Baseball Hall of Fame inductee.
Among those crowded onto Republic Hill, the oldest part of the cemetery, I'll concentrate this week on 19th- and early-20th-century figures.
• Edward Burleson: When this Texas pioneer, military leader and statesman died in 1851, he was laid to rest on land claimed by Sen. Andrew Jackson Hamilton in East Austin, called for these purposes the "state burying ground." Austin's main cemeteries were located outside the city limits, above flood lines and in comparatively malleable ground to the east.
• Stephen F. Austin: For a very long time, few people, other than some Confederate veterans, were buried here. It was not until the first decades of the 20th century that organized efforts were made to reinter the state's founders here. Austin's remains were transported from his sister's land at Peach Point. His is one of the most imposing of the cemetery's monuments.
• Josiah Wilbarger: One of the earliest white settlers in what is now Travis County, Wilbarger was scalped and left for dead by American Indians. He survived and was rescued by a party, inspired by a peculiarly specific dream, from a spot near the current Mueller development.
• Robert Rankin and Stephen Williams: One of the surprises of this visit was to discover two veterans of the American Revolutionary War. That's going way back.
• Albert Sidney Johnston: The United Daughters of the Confederacy helped hire Austin sculptor Elisabet Ney to create the plaster cast for a prone sculpture that was later finished in Italy in marble. It is protected by a glass-sided Gothic crypt. Johnston served as a general in three armies — Republic of Texas, United States and Confederate States. In between, he fought in wars against Native Americans and Mormons. He died at the Battle of Shiloh shortly after joining Confederate forces during the Civil War.
A statue of Johnston stood on the South Mall of the University of Texas campus from 1933 to 2017, when it was put into storage after longstanding protests about his strong associations, along with other men depicted by sculptor Pompeo Coppini, with white supremacy. Its future is controlled by the UT Briscoe Center for American History, which can, if Johnston is exhibited again, put him and the other statues into historical context, as it already has done with Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who now stands as part of an explanatory exhibit inside the Briscoe.
• James and Miriam Ferguson: One of the prettiest monuments in the park belongs to this husband-and-wife pair of Texas governors. The silhouette is art deco, while the details echo Spanish colonial decor. Their careers were long, complicated and, for the most part, corrupt. James was impeached and Miriam served later in his place.
• Edmund J. Davis: A Unionist governor of Texas, Davis might seem out of place among so many reminders of the Confederacy. Yet his brother made sure that Davis ended up with the tallest monument in the park. You can't miss it.
• Joanna Troutman: Many of the early women on this hill are the wives of judges, soldiers, civic leaders and statesmen of yore. (I'll revisit the modern women next week.) Troutman earned her patriotic monument by sewing the original Lone Star flag for Georgia volunteers heading to the Texas Revolution.
• Susanna Dickinson: One of the few white survivors of the Alamo, Dickinson was a true force of nature and lived in Austin long after that reverently remembered battle. She is actually buried at Oakwood; this is one of the cemetery's cenotaphs.
• José Antonio Navarro: This Tejano patriot was one of only two Texas natives to sign the Texas Declaration of Independence, along with his near relative José Francisco Ruiz, subject of an excellent recent biography. A friend of Stephen F. Austin, he partnered with the empresario to bring American colonists to Texas.
• French sailor: This gravestone is not on Republic Hill, but rather at the base of steep Monument Hill on the opposite side of the park. Yet since we are talking now about the most ancient of the dead, this example belongs in today's column.
It is the remains of a French sailor who went down with La Belle in 1686, part of La Salle's ill-fated party that got lost looking for the mouth of the Mississippi River, reinterred here in 2003. The amazing ruins of that small French ship and its contents can be seen at the Bullock Texas State History Museum.
Reflecting on the Civil War
Below Republic Hill is a wide meadow called Confederate Field. With its neat rows of small white monuments, it resembles the Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C. Buried here are hundreds of Confederate veterans and widows who spent the last years of their lives in dedicated Austin care homes. None died in combat.
The State Cemetery was once the resting place for several Union veterans, as well, but as part of national transference, they were moved to the San Antonio National Cemetery. Only one Union soldier remains in the northwest quadrant. His family, in fact, insisted that he be moved there from Oakwood, the city's oldest graveyard.
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You have plenty of time and visual impetus to contemplate the tragedy of the Civil War and its causes. The cemetery is a battlefield of subtle clashes. Perhaps the most elaborate monument, for instance, is dedicated to Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston, yet he fought for the South for only a few weeks at the end of his career and before his death at Shiloh. Meanwhile, the tallest monument in the park belongs to Edmund J. Davis, a Unionist governor of Texas.
Scholars and politicians tend to agree that monuments to Confederates like the ones found in this park belong here, where individuals are buried, rather than in the public square, like the UT campus or the Capitol, where they were often erected decades after the Civil War as celebrations of the "Lost Cause" and white supremacy.
Next week, I'll catch up on the late-20th-century and early-21st-century figures. Given the historical context, you can guess that there will be more to say next time about women and people of color. And I'll share how someone you know might qualify to join the ranks of those already entombed here.
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit the Texas State Cemetery
909 Navasota St., 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday, 512-463-0605, cemetery.tspb.texas.gov. Check for updates. The cemetery remains closed on weekends during the pandemic. It also is closed during active funerals.
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