Texas cemeteries with ties to Underground Railroad in shadow of border wall construction

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"Make sure that the border wall doesn’t go through our area and doesn’t destroy our ancestors."

SAN JUAN, Texas (Border Report) — In 1857, a white farmer named Nathaniel Jackson fled Alabama with his beloved Matilda Hicks, who had been a slave, and they landed in deep South Texas in the Rio Grande Valley. They married and ran a successful farm, and had many children and built a legacy that included using some of the lesser-known routes of the Underground Railroad to help other slaves escape south to Mexico by boarding boats and crossing the Rio Grande.

“He led a caravan of five covered wagons, seven families, over a dozen emancipated slaves from his plantation in Alabama through Louisiana into Texas,” according to a research report by the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Jackson and many of his descendants are buried in two cemeteries located two blocks apart about a mile north of the river. The founding family owned the land and helped slaves at that spot. When the first generation began dying off after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in the United States, they established the cemetery there. 

These are peaceful places that hold about 150 graves and have been designated as “historical sites” by the state of Texas, an important distinction as construction for the Trump administration’s border wall has begun just feet from the larger Eli Jackson Cemetery.

Photos of Jackson family ancestors hang inside the Jackson Ranch Church, which was built in 1884 by the Jackson family south of San Juan, Texas. The Jackson family has a historic cemetery at the church and two blocks away at Eli Jackson Cemetery, bottom right. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Nathaniel Jackson is believed to have been buried beneath a tree along the back edge of Eli Jackson Cemetery — named after one of Nathaniel’s sons — where 90 graves are neatly woven into the hot, South Texas earth. The elder’s marker floated away in a flood decades ago.

The other cemetery holds about 40 graves and is located at the Jackson Ranch Church, a small, 14-pew Methodist church the founding Jackson built out of wood for his family to freely practice their religion in this majority Catholic region, and to celebrate weddings and hold funerals.

Two of Jackson’s descendants met Border Report at the cemeteries Friday morning and explained their concerns about the border wall construction encroaching on an area they consider sacred to their families. And while they have been assured that the border wall will not be built on the actual cemetery properties — Congress exempted “historical cemeteries” from border wall construction — they remain concerned that their access will be cut off, or that getting to the cemeteries to clean graves, replace flowers or pray before their grandparents will become too difficult once the border wall is built.

Sylvia Ramirez, left, a retired university professor, left is seen on Aug. 28, 2020, inside the Jackson Ranch Church south of San Juan, Texas, which holds a cemetery with her grandfather and great-great descendants. Her cousin, Pablo “Paul” Villarreal Jr., right, is about two blocks away at the Eli Jackson Cemetery where his ancestors are buried. Border wall construction will cut within feet of both locations. (Border Report Photos/Sandra Sanchez)

“I’m honored that we have historical sites in our family,” said Pablo “Paul” Villarreal Jr., 55, a great-great-great-great grandson of Nathaniel Jackson, who is the Hidalgo County tax assessor-collector. “It looks like peaceful, of course, there is the noise of the border (wall construction) right now but hopefully eventually it will come to an area where we can come and visit our ancestors and be proud of what they did for the ones that did the right things. Overall that was the main purpose in life for them: To live a history here in the Valley.”

“It’s not clear how we’ll be given access to the church,” said Sylvia Ramirez, a distant cousin to Villarreal, and a descendant from Nathaniel’s son, Martin. “We have people coming from throughout the country to visit the church and the cemetery because of its historical significance, religious leaders as well, from the Methodist Church, who congregate here because of its historical importance, and we have family members from all over the country. It just seems to me that it would be very difficult for them to enter and still keep the security of the border wall, which is of course the purpose of having the wall altogether.”

The gray headstone of Ramirez’s grandmother, Nancy Jackson, who died in 1968, sits beneath a sturdy aging ash tree, which offers some respite from the near triple-digit heat and high humidity. Ramirez’s matching future headstone is already wedged in the earth nearby, beside her other family members “so we wouldn’t lose the spot. We wanted to all be together,” she said as she walks past her future gravesite.

Ramirez, a 68-year-old retired university professor who lives in the nearby town of Mercedes, said this has always been a place of tranquility for her. She comes and visits often. Her older brother, Ramiro Ramirez, mows and does frequent property repairs. They relish their ability to honor their ancestors by keeping this area in perfect repose for them.

Now the sound of cicadas and the bleating of goats that frequently roam this rural area are drowned out by the heavy construction machinery that is clawing away at the earthen levee and is digging deep the trenches where a 30-foot-tall border wall is slated to be built just feet from the cemeteries.

“We don’t want our sacred sites walled off from the rest of the U.S.A.,” Ramirez said.

Heavy machinery on Friday, Aug. 28, 2020, tear away at an earthen levee, built in the 1930s, where a 30-foot-tall border wall is scheduled to be built south of San Juan, Texas, just feet from a historical cemetery. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Now she comes to the cemetery almost every day to ensure construction crews don’t come on the property. She has traveled to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., to plead with lawmakers to exempt the cemetery from border wall construction. She calls local officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection often to ask what their exact plans are — where the 150-foot-wide enforcement zone, tall flood lighting and all-weather road will be put, she said.

“We still don’t know,” she said. “And construction has already begun. You can hear it now. They should know exactly what their plans are already. But they’re not telling us.”

Villarreal said he has also had frequent conversations with U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar, Vicente Gonzalez and Filemon Vela Jr., the three South Texas congressmen who represent this region, regarding the border wall placement. And while he is grateful that the 2020 budget bill forbids funds to be used for construction of the wall on historic cemeteries, he worries what the exact language for the 2021 budget bill will contain. The U.S. House has passed the measure, but it has not passed the Senate. And it also must be signed by the president, which is not expected to happen prior to the election.

Historical markers put up by the Texas Historical Commission for the Jackson Ranch Church and the Eli Jackson Cemetery are seen from the highway. In the background clearing heavy machinery is seen on Aug. 28, 2020, which is carving out an earthen levee to build the border wall. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“It’s history and that’s why we need to preserve it,” Villarreal said as he sat on a wooden plank atop a few cinder blocks that his mother, Rosita, sits on when she comes to pray in front of the grave of her grandfather, Federico Jackson. He was born on the same day and died on the same day as his cousin, Pauleno Caseres, and the two are buried next to each other. The heart-shaped headstone, decorated with colorful plastic flowers, bears their birthday and date of death: July 18, 1898- Dec. 29, 1920.

These are well-kept, well-loved plots, preserved by dedicated family members who place plastic flowers neatly arranged at the graves, happy smiling ceramic gnomes, and American flags.

As an elected official, Villarreal, 55, is careful not to criticize the Trump administration. “Government will do what they need to do as long as we can preserve our area we’ll be fine,” he said as he walked the wet grassy grounds and yelled over the noisy hum of construction crews.

Ramirez, however, is more outspoken in her disdain for the current administration’s plans to “wall off” the Rio Grande Valley. And she worries even if they are granted a gate to access the cemeteries, will she be safe alone in a no-man’s zone caught between both countries? She also fears that construction of the border wall could increase flood threats to the church, and that tall floodlights run 24/7 from above the church and cemetery will detract from the area’s peacefulness.

“This wall is being inflicted upon us for political purposes, in my opinion, for Trump, for a vanity project for a promise that he made. It’s actually quite upsetting to us as a family, to have this very sensitive area here with not only two historical cemeteries and the church, that we are one of the first places in this entire area, both east and west, that they decided to build the border wall,” Ramirez said. “Why are they doing it here?”

A CBP official told Border Report that this section of the border wall the agency is currently building is 2.5 miles of 11 miles planned for this project called RGV 04. “The planned border infrastructure will not impact the cemetery,” and the 150-foot enforcement zone is scheduled to be built on the east side adjacent to the Eli Jackson Cemetery. The levee road is to be built on the landside of the wall and the patrol road on the riverside.”

Said Villarreal: “Just make sure that the border wall doesn’t go through our area and doesn’t destroy our ancestors.”

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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