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Refugio cemetery tells racial history

By BY KELDY ORTIZ - KORTIZ@VICAD.COM
Jan. 31, 2013 at 10:05 p.m.
Updated Jan. 31, 2013 at 8:01 p.m.

Marjorie Shaw stands in front of the Refugio Community Cemetery. Shaw is the vice president of the cemetery association.

REFUGIO - While walking through Refugio Community Cemetery, Marjorie Shaw looked at the graves of the past.

Some were old tombstones that dated to the 1800s. Some tombs were as recent as late December. Not looking at a particular grave, she remembered family members laid to rest at the site.

And she recalled two things about the cemetery that remains constant through time. The majority of people who were buried in the cemetery were of African-American descent, said Shaw, 74. And the cemetery was cared for by Refugio resident Willie Brown.

Brown, an African-American, 81, died in December, and members of the community have inherited his duty to care for the cemetery, but it hasn't been easy.

"It's been hard; we make dates so we can clean up," recalled Shaw of Brown. "He was the one-man show."

Brown's widow, Hazel, who would have celebrated their 37th anniversary in January, said she will always remember his dedication. Part of his commitment to community grew from his military service during the Korean War.

"He was sincere about the cemetery," she said. "He would get upset because there wasn't more people who would get involved in the cemetery."

She said Brown continued working into his later years as a volunteer.

"He was a go-getter," she said. "He always said, 'I'm not going to rust out, I'm going to wear out.'"

His cousin, Ezekiel Jones, said Brown was really generous with his time. Perhaps, he said, more than he should have been.

"He was involved in various organizations but too much," he said, explaining that Brown was hiding from others that he was ill. "We were close. He was a nice friend."

Jones said the two would attend church together and became deacons at the Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church. It was a history they shared together, and the cemetery was another part of their bond.

Before Brown passed, he was also president of the Refugio Community Cemetery Association for six years, while Shaw maintained the role of vice president. The organization has now been limited because of a lack of commitment, and hardly anyone shows up to association meetings, Hazel Brown said.

The history of the area cemetery remains unknown to Shaw. She doesn't recall exactly what year the cemetery was given to the Refugio community, but some headstones have dates that go back as far as the early 1800s. She said Brown once explained to her that the site has been dedicated to African-Americans. It still remains that way.

Other cemeteries in Refugio also are segregated by race, she said. It's just been that way, Shaw said.

She said it has been hard to maintain the cemetery on her own. Brown, she said, looked for people to help. It was the reason she got involved six years ago.

"He just believed in helping," Shaw said.

With Brown's death, both Shaw and Jones hope the cemetery can be directed and cared for again with the purpose of what Brown wanted - to be there for the community.

Shaw said Brown helped the cemetery because "he wanted people to see Jesus," she said.

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