WACO, Texas — Bessie Lee Williams would have been 105-years old Tuesday if she was still alive but, according to her son-in-law Matthew Reed, she got the best birthday present when the Greenwood Cemetery, where she's buried, received a long-needed facelift.
"You couldn't walk through here at all and you could hardly clean the graves because you couldn't get to them," Reed said.
Reed said his wife's family is buried here as well. Some of them served in World War II and the Vietnam War. The family had no idea a renovation of this magnitude took place.
"So, yeah, we are pleasantly surprised coming here with all of the renovations now completed, even though we didn't know it was happening," Reed said.
According to the City of Waco, the efforts that started the process began many years ago when numerous cemetery associations began a dialogue with the Waco City Council. The $435,000 renovation became a key initiative of longtime former Councilmember Wilbert Austin, Sr. and was continued forward by his successors, Noah Jackson, Jr. and Andrea Barefield.
Greenwood Cemetery is the second oldest cemetery in Waco and dates back to 1875 when the City of Waco, McLennan County and several private entities each began operating their respective portions of the 18-acre site for burials.
The City of Waco acknowledged that Greenwood is the final resting place for many. The City said it's also struggled with the legacy of a segregated past. Internal fencing and disparities in care, they said, always brought back painful reminders of inequality.
"It sort of makes me feel like I'm at home now," said former Councilman Jackson, Jr. "We don't need to stop here. A lot of these tombstones and stuff that's leaning, we need to get all that stuff straightened up. It can be done. It can be done."
The work was completed as part of the renovation in close coordination with the Texas Historical Commission through a series of phases that navigated archaeology and survey, engineering and permitting, removal of internal fencing and subsequent construction to provide a unified perimeter with ornamental entrances, arches and fencing, according to the City of Waco.
Reed said what happened at Greenwood was the best birthday present for his Mom Bessie that they could ask for.
"The dead looked like they were forgotten, looked like they were forgotten so that's why it was so sad, ya know. But today we know that it gives some sort of respect to them and some form of honor to them," he said. "I can come in here now and feel good. I can feel good because we know people die but it's what we do after they are gone. For a long time, this place was neglected."