Immigration & Labor

Trump’s Border Wall Would Destroy Historic Gravesites in Texas

The history of an outpost on the Underground Railroad could be lost.
Verónica G. Cárdenas
Ramiro Roberto Ramírez in front of the Martin Jackson Church and Cemetery in San Juan, Tex. on Nov. 6, 2018.

Ramiro R. Ramírez remembers his grandmother, when he was a young child, planting a red rose bush to mark the gravesite of Nathaniel Jackson, his great-great grandfather. With time, the rose bush vanished, like the wooden cross marking Jackson’s death in 1865. But Jackson’s legacy was not forgotten, nor that of his wife Matilda Hicks, an emancipated slave who forged a life with Nathaniel, a white man and son of a plantation owner.

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The interracial couple, along with their eldest son Eli Jackson and six other children, fled a racist South and persecution under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, searching for acceptance and peace. Joined by 11 other former slaves, in five covered wagons, they set out from Alabama for a new life in Mexico, where slavery had been outlawed. When they arrived in 1857 at the Rio Grande, they decided to settle in Texas, since a lack of Spanish would be less of an impediment there. And Mexico was just across the river, a short boat journey to safety if they ever needed to escape.

The families living on Jackson Ranch in the small town of Pharr, near McAllen, Texas, prospered, with many of the African-American men and women marrying into local Tejano and Mexican families. And the ranch became an important outpost on the Underground Railroad, where Matilda and Nathaniel would spirit escaped slaves across the river to freedom in Mexico.

Key Findings

  • In 2018, the Trump administration received $1.6 billion to build 33 miles of wall in the Rio Grande Valley, which encompasses four border counties — Starr, Hidalgo, Cameron, and Willacy.

  • The first 14 miles of that will are set to be built in Hidalgo County near historic cemeteries with a rich history dating back to the Civil War era.

  • The 2005 Real ID Act gives the secretary of Homeland Security unilateral authority to waive any federal law that would impede construction of the wall, including the Antiquities Act and the National Historic Preservation Act.

  • One family whose grave sites may be destroyed served as a Texas outpost on the Underground Railroad.

At the ranch, a multiracial community of tolerance thrived. Now 70, Ramírez and other descendants of the Jackson family are fighting to save their family’s legacy and the gravesites of Nathaniel and Matilda, which could be destroyed by a border wall up to 30 feet high, one of the first sections of President Donald Trump’s wall slated to go up. This stretch would include not only a steel and concrete wall, but also a 150-foot-wide “enforcement zone” — an all-weather road and surveillance towers — that is slated to be built straight through the family cemetery in the coming year.

“They’re going to cut right through the heart of it,” Ramírez said of the Eli Jackson Cemetery, where Nathaniel and Matilda are buried. “We don’t know if they’re going to exhume the bodies or just run right over them. And we’re doing everything we can to stop it.”

But Ramírez and his family face a tough battle. A provision under the 2005 Real ID Act gives the secretary of Homeland Security unilateral authority to waive any federal law that would impede construction of the border wall, and exempts the wall from compliance with such laws as the Antiquities Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, which would normally require public hearings regarding the destruction of important historical, archeological, and burial sites, many of which now sit in the border wall’s path. Two waivers have already been filed by DHS to build walls nearby, but not yet on the segment of the border in Hidalgo County, which includes the Eli Jackson Cemetery and the Jackson Ranch Chapel and Cemetery. Both hold Jackson family ancestors. But the Eli Jackson Cemetery is more endangered, said Ramírez, because it lies adjacent to the levee where the wall will be built, which means that the enforcement zone south of the levee wall will run right through the cemetery. The other cemetery is far enough from the levee to not be harmed directly, he said. But it will be behind the wall, cut off from the rest of Texas.

In 2018, the Trump administration received $1.6 billion to build 33 miles of wall in the Rio Grande Valley, which encompasses the four border counties at the southernmost tip of Texas — Starr, Hidalgo, Cameron, and Willacy. In October and November, U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued two contracts worth $312 million to a Texas-based construction firm, SLSCO, to build the first 14 miles through Hidalgo County near the cemeteries. Reports in the local newspaper that construction could begin as early as February sent a shock of alarm through the many descendants of the Jackson clan, said Sylvia Ramírez, Ramiro’s sister.

Verónica G. Cárdenas

A grave at the Eli Jackson Cemetery in San Juan, Tex. on Nov. 6, 2018.

Sylvia said that despite their efforts to speak with officials at CBP, the agency overseeing the wall’s construction, they’ve received no response about the fate of the cemeteries. The family was further troubled when CBP announced that it would hold no public meetings on the wall’s construction — only online webinars. Sylvia said she posted a question online during the Q&A portion of the October 30 webinar, asking about the fate of the cemeteries and their relatives buried there. “They seemed to be unaware of the cemeteries in the area,” she told me. “They said they’d try to work with us, but I felt like they were only trying to appease me.”

Rattled by CBP’s lackadaisical response, Sylvia, Ramiro, and other Jackson family descendants hired a lawyer, who sent out a detailed letter to CBP in November with the geographical coordinates of the cemeteries holding their ancestors. “The Jackson Family is determined to protect the sacred gravesites of their ancestors and the historic Jackson Ranch Church from the negative impacts of the border wall,” the family wrote. “The building of the wall should not be undertaken until an exhaustive analysis is completed. The stakes are too high.”

But as of mid-January, the family had still not received a response from CBP. “We are just waiting and worrying,” Sylvia said. Trump’s announcement that he might call a “national emergency” and have the military quickly build the wall has caused further panic. “I feel like we’re ants under the heel of the government,” she said. “Just struggling to have our voices heard.”

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Right now, Sylvia told me, they’re lacking even the most basic of information: When will construction begin?

In the last year, the agency has held only general information and invitation-only meetings with landowners and their legal representatives and done little public outreach in Spanish, which many residents speak in the Rio Grande Valley. Sylvia said that she had one brief phone call with a Border Patrol spokesperson at the request of a congressman, but beyond that, no members of the Jackson Family have been contacted by CBP about its plans. “He made it clear that it was going to happen,” she said of the Border Patrol representative she spoke with. “And the only input we’d have is whether the gate would remain open during the day, or we’d have an access code.”

Creating more confusion, during the October webinar, CBP released a map showing that a waiver had been filed for the segment of border wall that will go through the cemeteries. But there was no notice in the Federal Register that a waiver for that section had been filed. In mid-December, a CBP spokesperson confirmed this. “The area … is not part of the RGV 02/03 waiver,” Carlos Diaz, a CBP spokesperson, said by email. This could indicate that construction will not begin as soon as February on that segment, but Diaz confirmed that construction could start as early as next month on nearby tracts of land.

Recently, I met with Ramiro, Sylvia, and other members of the family outside the small, white clapboard church at the Jackson Ranch and Cemetery. Ramiro, a horse breeder and psychologist, said he’d spent any spare hours he could muster rebuilding and maintaining the chapel, which was founded in 1874 by Nathaniel and Matilda’s son Martin and became the first Methodist Church in the region. The chapel held services until 2008, when it was flooded. Since the construction of the wall was announced, Ramiro has been working diligently to have the deed transferred to a newly created nonprofit trust run by the family that will care for the chapel and the cemetery, a registered Texas historic landmark.

“This is not just about the past, but also our future,” said Ramírez. He showed me his own granite headstone, which already stands next to his father’s gravesite in the shadow of the church. “It’s really upsetting knowing that I, my wife, and my children will be here one day with a wall between us and the rest of the country. If the wall goes up, I don’t think the church will survive,” he said, because a gate will block the road, which requires an access code from DHS. “We don’t know how people will be able to get in and out, and no one talks to us from the government.”

We climbed into Ramiro’s King Ranch double-cab pickup and bumped down a dirt road less than a quarter mile to the Eli Jackson Cemetery, where Nathaniel and Matilda are buried. Both graves are now unmarked, Ramiro told me, and their exact locations within the cemetery were lost after his grandmother died. “I know they are both here,” he told me scanning the cemetery, which holds at least 150 graves. “I just don’t know where.”

The tall grass and mesquite trees have run wild in the decades since he was a boy, obscuring many of the old gravesites dating back to the 1800s. Ramiro wants to locate their burial sites, and he and the family plan to rehabilitate the cemetery.

Verónica G. Cárdenas

Ramiro Roberto Ramírez’s walks into Eli Jackson Cemetery where his ancestors are buried in San Juan, Tex. on Nov. 6, 2018.

What many don’t realize in the rest of the country, Ramiro said, pointing toward the levee at the edge of the cemetery, is that the border wall is being built not on the river, the effective border with Mexico, but on the levee, which is about a mile in from the Rio Grande. “Then they want a 150-foot-wide enforcement zone south of the wall,” he said. “And that worries me.”

Ramírez has good cause for concern. During the first bout of border wall building in neighboring Cameron County a decade ago, at least one small historic ranching cemetery was bulldozed. That stretch of steel 18-foot fencing was built right on top of the gravesites, which probably dated back to the late 19th or early 20th century, according to Gene Fernandez, site manager of the Brownsville Museum and a local historian. Fernandez said Cameron County alone has anywhere between 100 and 120 hidden or forgotten ranching cemeteries.

Of the burial sites that were bulldozed, Fernandez described it as a small family plot, containing three or four burials. He does not know who they were, he said. “When the advance team was out there doing the earth moving, a local man told them there were some old burials there, a family plot, and the guy in charge just blatantly said, ‘We don’t have it on our map.’ And that’s as far as it went,” Fernandez said.

In 2008, Ned Norris Jr., chair of the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona, testified during a congressional hearing that a similar incident had happened on ancestral land during the construction of a border barrier. “Fragments of human remains were observed in the tire tracks of the heavy construction equipment,” said Norris. “Imagine a bulldozer parking in your family graveyard, turning up bones. This is our reality.”

Curious to learn more about what happened in Brownsville, I tracked down the local man, and he confirmed what Fernandez had told me, though he asked me not to use his name because he fears retaliation. He said the bulldozing of the burial sites in Brownsville had happened in June 2009. “The contractor said he had no knowledge of the burial sites on his map when I told him about it. They just kept building.” He said he did not remember the names of the people who were buried there, but that there were once wooden crosses there. The crosses had disappeared by 2009, he said, though there were still empty glass votive candles around the gravesites.

Kiewit, the company in charge of the construction in 2009, declined to comment, referring the request to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which did not respond to requests for comment.

Fernandez, who is also chair of the Cemeteries Committee for the Cameron County Historical Commission, said the destruction of the burial site in Brownsville is the only such incident he’s aware of, and it happened “before I was active down here.” Fernandez says he now serves as a liaison on a CBP border security committee to make sure no other historic graves are destroyed.

In Cameron County, some historic cemeteries have already ended up behind the wall in the roughly mile-wide strip of land between the Rio Grande and the steel and concrete barrier — what many locals now call “no man’s land.”

Three generations of Juan Jose Gonzalez’s family are buried in the Santa Rosalia Cemetery, which dates back to the 1800s and is now behind an 18-foot border fence in Brownsville.“The wall is very intimidating,” said Gonzalez. “People think they can’t go there because it’s not safe, or it’s Mexico. And if they are undocumented, they won’t take the chance because there are Border Patrol agents roaming around and visible at all times.”

Gonzalez, a local middle school teacher, started the Santa Rosalia Cemetery Preservation Society two years ago to make sure the cemetery was not forgotten behind the imposing barrier. He said he encourages relatives to visit their loved ones there, despite the wall. “I tell them it’s safe to go, it’s OK.”

But now he’s worried that their access to their loved ones at the cemetery could be cut off. For the last decade, there has been a gap in the wall where a road leads to the cemetery’s entrance. CBP is building a large metal gate there now, which concerns Gonzalez. “I haven’t spoken with CBP myself, but I’ve heard they may keep it open during the day, but close it at night,” he said. “No one really knows.”

Sylvia Ramírez fears something similar will happen to her ancestors at Jackson Ranch and the Eli Jackson Cemetery. They’ll be walled off from their descendants, or even worse, their graves desecrated to make way for Trump’s wall. “We’re not under any illusion that we can stop it,” she said. “But maybe if there’s enough of us, we can still make some noise and slow it down.”

In Hidalgo County, the historic cemeteries the Jackson clan is fighting to save have a better chance than most, because they are so well-documented. Roseann Bacha-Garza, a historian with the University of Texas in the Rio Grande Valley, has been piecing together the history of Jackson Ranch and its importance in the Underground Railroad during the Civil War era. “This history is so little known and not enough attention has been paid to it,” said Bacha-Garza. “Most Americans have no idea that the last land battle of the Civil War actually happened here — and a month after the war was technically over. The waters of the Rio Grande were considered neutral territory, because of Mexico, and the Union could not blockade the Confederacy, some of who were flying Mexican flags on their ships. Tejanos fought here, the U.S. Colored Troops too,” she said.

Four years ago, Bacha-Garza and other scholars at the university launched a program called the RGV Civil War Trail Project to document important cultural artifacts and history in the region. So far, they’ve created a series of bilingual podcasts and a tourism guide of Civil War history in the area, a history that is now being taught in the schools for the first time. “We’ve developed a curriculum and lesson plans and been working with teachers, so they can take their students on field trips up and down the 200-mile Civil War Trail in the Rio Grande Valley,” she said. “We’re trying to instill community pride and uncover the past so that children can get a sense of their cultural heritage.”

The trail largely follows the present-day Military Highway, which runs east and west along the border. In the Civil War era, it was a well-trodden route between Fort Ringgold in rural Starr County and Fort Brown in the busy port city of Brownsville, which was used by both Confederate and Union troops.

Jackson Ranch was an important stopping point along the way. Nathaniel Jackson was a loyal Unionist. Another member of the community, Abraham Rutledge, fought as a partisan ranger for the Confederacy. Cemeteries from these old ranching communities, like Jackson Ranch, dot both sides of the Military Highway along the river.

Bacha-Garza said she’s deeply saddened by the idea that Jackson Ranch and other historical sites they’ve mapped in the last four years will soon be behind a border wall.

The story of Jackson Ranch should be better known, she said. During a tumultuous time in America’s history, when brother fought against brother, people of different races and religions formed a vibrant mixed community on the Texas border that still flourishes. “It’s very important regional history,” she said. “And this heritage will be cut off from us.”

This article was produced in partnership with Type Investigations, where Melissa del Bosque is a Lannan reporting fellow.

About the reporter

Melissa del Bosque

Melissa del Bosque

Melissa del Bosque is a Lannan reporting fellow with Type Investigations.

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