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Historic Stringtown Cemetery resting place of Burnet County ‘Freedom Colony’

Stringtown Cemetery in Burnet County

Stringtown Cemetery near Oatmeal in northeast Burnet County before a cleanup in November 2023. The only all-Black cemetery in the county has about 70 graves, 50 of them unmarked. Photo courtesy of Michael Ritchie

Stringtown Cemetery near Oatmeal and Bertram is being revived. The only all-Black cemetery in Burnet County was recently awarded a Texas Historical Commission Undertold Marker and 50/50 matching grant

The $15,000 grant will help research the history of and restore the 158-year-old graveyard, a necessary step in obtaining a state marker and being listed as a National Historic Landmark. While waiting on state funding, local volunteers are already cutting back overgrown vegetation and cleaning headstones — a labor of love. 

“This is something that has needed doing since way before I came on the historic commission,” said Lela Goar, the Certified Local Government grant coordinator for the Burnet County Historical Commission. “We want to get it cleaned up, fenced up, and make it accessible.” 

Before the vote to approve the Undertold Marker and grant, the Texas Historical Commission had already expressed support for the preservation of Stringtown’s history. In 2012, the commission designated Stringtown a Historic Texas Cemetery. 

“We’ve been aware of this cemetery and its significance for some time,” said Carlyn Hammons, the Cemetery Preservation Program specialist for the Texas Historical Commission. “A cemetery like this that’s associated with the freedom colonies is extremely important. They are the only visible reminders of those settlements that are left.” 

The term “Freedom Colonies” is unique to Texas, although similar communities popped up in other states. It refers to areas settled by newly emancipated slaves, usually outside of larger, mostly white-populated towns. According to the Texas Freedom Colonies Project, 557 of these communities existed in Texas between 1865 and 1930. 

In Stringtown, former slaves built their homes side by side (in a “string”) along a dirt lane, which is now RM 1174. The founder, the Rev. Sam Houston, is believed to be a descendant of slaves held by Gen. Sam Houston, the first and third president of the Republic of Texas. 

Stringtown Cemetery in Burnet County
LEFT: The epitaph on the Rev. Sam Houston’s headstone in Stringtown Cemetery reads: ‘Through the dark valley of death I pass. I fear no evil for thou art with me.” Houston died on May 8, 1894. RIGHT: One of the oldest headstones in Stringtown Cemetery belongs to Richard Moreland, son of S.M. and S.S. Moreland. He was born on March 10, 1866. His epitaph reads, ‘Beyond the sacred page, seek the Lord. My spirit pants for thee o’ living word.’ Photos courtesy of Michael Ritchie

Rev. Houston built a combination school/church near the cemetery plot located at the end of County Road 326A, just two-tenths of a mile from the settlement. His gravestone records his birth as 1824, but the day, month, and location are unknown. He died on May 8, 1894, in Stringtown.

Nothing but the cemetery remains of the town, which was abandoned during the Great Depression. Many of the residents moved to Marble Falls, Liberty Hill, Leander, and Lampasas. They did not move to Bertram, which, as a sundown town, did not allow non-white people in the city limits between sunset and sunrise.

“The churches and schools closed, the people moved away,” Hammons said. “The cemeteries are all that’s left. I’m especially encouraged that there are people trying to restore it and keep it from being forgotten. I am hoping the Burnet (County Historical Commission) will be able to uncover some additional information to add to the historical record.”

Property owners Virginia and Albert Downing took care of the cemetery until they were no longer able to due to health issues. Albert is a longtime member of the Burnet County Historical Commission and supports its goals to obtain a Texas Historical Marker and form a cemetery association to handle maintenance in the future. 

Stringtown Cemetery has about 70 graves, 50 of them unmarked, according to a survey taken in 1982 by the BCHC.

A partial list of the marked graves was included in the commission’s 2011 application for a historical cemetery designation. The oldest marked graves belong to siblings Annie and Eddie Jennings, who were both buried in 1887. Annie was born on Jan. 30, 1876. She died one year and almost 10 months later on Nov. 21, 1877. Eddie died the same year as his birth at the age of 10 months old.

Stringtown Cemetery in Burnet County
Siblings Annie (left) and Eddie Jennings (right) both died as babies— Annie at the age of 18 months and Eddie at 10 months. The Jennings children are the first graves with a marked headstone in the all-Black Stringtown Cemetery near Oatmeal. Photos courtesy of Burnet County Historical Commission

The gravestone for Richard Moreland was at first thought to have read “March 10, 1866-April 4, 1866,” which would have made it the oldest. A thorough cleaning revealed the child was buried in 1886. Richard was the son of Sara and Sam Moreland, who came to the area from Tennessee. They had 10 children, most of them buried in Stringtown.

The most recent grave is dated Oct. 1, 1965, and belongs to Mellie Boyce Green, who was living in California when she died. She was born in Oatmeal on Dec. 31, 1888.

“She let her family know that she wanted to be sent back to Texas and buried in Stringtown Cemetery because of her relationship to the people there,” Goar said. “Those are the kinds of things we are trying to find out through our research.” 

One discovery is that the parents of Will Fish were buried in Stringtown. Fish was the first generation of his family to be born free. He was profiled in the September 2023 issue of The Picayune Magazine. He and a sister, Elvira Fish Johnson, lived on Avenue N in Marble Falls. Both are buried in the Marble Falls Cemetery. 

Much more paperwork lies ahead for the Burnet County Historical Commission to achieve its goal of obtaining a state historical marker, but so does a lot of physical labor, which is where the grant money comes in. 

“We’ve got enough people volunteering to do the research for us that we won’t have to use much of the money for that,” Goar said. “We have a landman in place who will finish up the deed research and a lot of people willing to help with the clearing.” 

Nichole and Michael Ritchie, Cottonwood Shores history buffs who recently found two lost local Texas Centennial Markers, are new members of the BCHC and active in the Stringtown Cemetery project. Nichole located a Moreland descendant, Katie Wills Campbell, who lives in Leander. Campbell said she visited the cemetery once years ago but hopes to return during an upcoming cleaning session.

“I’m the baby of the family and the only one left,” Campbell said. “I don’t know anything about the rest of the family, but I’ve been doing some research, too. I haven’t found much.” 

She directed this reporter to a distant cousin in Temple, Arthur Moreland, but he had no stories that related to relatives in Stringtown. 

Michael Ritchie has been instrumental in helping clear the land by organizing volunteers to carefully cut back vegetation from around timeworn headstones. He and Nichole are also cleaning headstones.

Volunteers cleared brush on a day in November 2023. The area was slated to be sprayed in late January with a pesticide to kill greenbrier vines that have taken over the 90-foot-by-120-foot plot.Another cleanup is expected to be scheduled for early February, depending on the weather. 

Anyone with information about descendants of early Burnet settlers buried in Stringtown Cemetery should call Nichole Ritchie at 512-645-8658. Those interested in helping establish a cemetery association for Stringtown should call BCHC Chairman Rachel Bryson at 512-876-5600.