Slavery, its scars revisited on Juneteenth

cemetery
Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com
Ollie Gonzalez, 52, of Edinburg places
flowers on one of the four gravesites at
Restlawn Cemetery on Saturday, June 16,
2012. Gonzalez remembers as a child
visiting the cemetery and asking her
mother why they were separate from the
rest of the cemetery.

The Monitor

By Ildefonso Ortiz
June 18, 2012



EDINBURG — Ollie Gonzalez walked around her father and mother's gravesite at Restlawn Cemetery, recalling when she would visit it as a child.

"I was about 2 or 3 when my mother would bring me to visit my father’s grave," said Gonzalez, 52.

Gonzalez's father, World War II veteran Ollie Heliton, died in 1966 during a time when the color of his skin meant he would be buried at a cemetery for 'colored' people, Gonzalez said.

Over the years, Restlawn Cemetery became somewhat neglected, with tall grass obscuring the wooden crosses and a handful of gravestones.

Gonzalez, determined not to let her heritage be forgotten, began visiting the cemetery during the mid-1980s with her family and began tending to what was first her father’s and then also her mother’s final resting place.

"There are many gravesites that are still unknown here," she said.

Gonzalez joined a gathering at Restlawn over the weekend for an early commemoration of the anniversary of June 19, 1865 — known as Juneteenth. On that date, Union soldiers arrived in Galveston with news that the Civil War was over and blacks at last could seize the freedom promised them in the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.

The celebration of Juneteenth takes on different shapes from one community to the next, with some cities having large parades and others gathering at small family barbecues, said Clifford Robinson, founder of Juneteenth.com.

But Robinson noted two key aspects to the annual observance: looking back and looking forward.

"The most important part of the holiday is to remember those who have gone before you," said Robinson, whose website is devoted to educating the public about the holiday. “And second, take the time to plan your future and map out your goals."

'SO WE DON’T FORGET'

During the Juneteenth ceremony Saturday morning in Edinburg, state Rep. Aaron Peña spoke of learning from America’s mistakes and remembering them.

"When we were created, God made us all equal," Peña said. “It was the weakness of men that led us to this … . We must remember so that we don’t let it happen again."

In addition to Gonzalez’s father, two other black World War II veterans — Jacob White and Lewis C. Callis — are buried in Restlawn Cemetery, said Emilio de Los Santos, director of Hidalgo County Veterans Services.

"These are heroes that served their country," De Los Santos said. "In the foxhole we don’t look at races or skin color: We are all brothers."

At the ceremony Saturday, the veterans were honored with a 21-gun salute and the playing of taps.

The city of Edinburg is working to preserve Restlawn Cemetery and the history behind it, said Mayor Pro-Tem Gus Garcia, whose wife is black.

After the ceremony, tears ran down Gonzalez's face.

"This brings memories. Some are happy, some hurt," she said. "It's important to have them so we don’t forget."

One of the memories took place shortly before her father died when they went to eat at a restaurant in Pharr.

"The owner told us that we had to eat in the kitchen," Gonzalez said. "My father got very upset. He said that he was a paying customer and should have the right to eat at a table.

"We left the restaurant."

As time goes, people’s perceptions have changed, however there are still words that hurt. It is up to individuals to be stronger than that, Gonzalez said.

"I see it to this day," she said. "People call me 'la negra,' and that is fine because that is just a word.

"That is not me," she said. "I am more than that."

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Ildefonso Ortiz covers law enforcement and general assignments for The Monitor. He can be reached at iortiz@themonitor.com and (956) 683-4437.

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