Dusting off history of the past in Staples￼
By Marilyn Merriweather Johnson
In early November 2021, I received a phone call from a lady who identified herself as Peggy Anderson. I later found out that Peggy is a resident of the small farming community of Staples and a self-proclaimed researcher and activist in the area of historical cemetery preservation. She told me that the “Colored Cemetery” located in Staples on FM Road 621 South had been sold.
Peggy went on to share her disdain and utter disgust that apart of the history of Staples was about to be wiped out, and not only that but a burial ground of many of Staples’ early Freedmen Settlers (newly freed slaves) would be desecrated. She outlined in great detail all of the events that had led up to the sale and all of her exhaustive efforts with the officials at the Guadalupe County Tax Office to question the sale. This is a battle she had been fighting for over eighteen months. I listened to Peggy’s story with interest, but she especially caught my attention, when she called the name of a man I knew very well. She told me that he was one of the few individuals she had observed working to keep the cemetery cleaned and maintained. She told me that his name was Marvin Merriweather, Sr.—my father. I called this divine providence! I knew my father was raised in the Staples, Redwood and Cottonwood Creek area in his formative years and he continued to have a connection to the community because of the “Staples Colored Cemetery,” where a majority of his family was interred. My father has been dead for over sixteen years and if he was one of the few caring for the cemetery, I could just imagine what state the cemetery was in at the time of our conversation. I also felt that if my father was involved in an effort—it was also worthy of my time and effort.
I could hear the desperation in Peggy’s voice and I agreed to meet with her. In the meantime, I notified as many descendants as I possibly could concerning the matter. I started with my immediate family and reached out to the few people I knew might have relatives buried in the cemetery. I must admit that I had never been to this cemetery. I only knew it as a place my father would go visit and he attended funeral and burials in the cemetery.
A group of descendants and interested individuals met with Peggy and Mike Howard, and she outlined her attempts to question the sale of the cemetery and later her attempt to have the sale reversed. At this meeting she shared copies of her information and documentations of her efforts to question the sale of the cemetery. She also had the support of several Staples citizens who agreed with Peggy that this eradication of part of Staples’ history and the history of a people—newly emancipated slaves who had walked thousands of miles from places of horror to find land and freedom to exercise their God given right to be free men and women and the opportunity to thrive and become productive members of society. These freedmen represented just a fraction of the thousands of former slaves who from 1865 to 1920 started a migration to various areas of Texas to start freedmen colonies or enclaves. According to my research and information from The Texas Freedom Colonies Project, “At one time, as many as 557 plus settlements existed in Texas alone. Currently, there is an inability to find many of them on maps or in current census records, but they live on through memory, church anniversaries, oral histories and family reunions.”
This statement certainly holds true, as long as you have the people to share the memories—in my case, my father was gone and so are many of his generation. It is difficult to find written records of the life of the residents in these freedmen colonies and enclaves. All that is left are old bricks strewn on the ground where a church or a school once stood and sunken headstones as a stark reminder that energetic, vibrant, craftsmen and descent law-abiding people lived. When I went to visit the cemetery after my conversation with Peggy, I found two acres of land high in grass and entangle sticker bushes too difficult for anyone to find a path to walk through and I didn’t! I stood at the entrance of the cemetery and wondered what was on the other side of the immense amount of brush and trees. I thought about my father and his ancestors who lived in the community of Staples in the late 1860’s. This place, which had a church (Pleasant Rose), a school and a cemetery to the back of the property. was probably the center of the enclave’s fellowship, scholarship and place of consolation and encouragement.
To make a long story short, for now, because I intend to try and tell the story of these earlier settlers of freedmen in the Staples area in a book. After our meeting with Peggy — mainly my siblings, a few other descendants who had family members buried in the cemetery; jointly agreed to help her in her fight to get the cemetery back to its rightful owners — the descendants. We started by organizing an association, which we named the “Staples African-American Freedman Colony Association” (SAAFCA) to represent the intent of the Freedmen Settlers who had travelled through unimaginable hardship to come to a place where they felt they would find safety, prosperity with land ownership and an opportunity to use their skills, talents and give their children a better life.
The Association was formed with by-laws and articles of non-incorporation and a Board of Directors was elected to manage the operation of the cemetery. One of the reason the Association was founded is the person who had purchased the cemetery had agree to return it, only if it went to a group and not to an individual. The Association met frequently to make decisions to enable us to acquire the return of the cemetery to the descendants.
In late January 2022, the cemetery officially was deeded to the newly formed “Staples African-American Freedmen Colony Association.” Thanks to the guidance ship of Peggy Anderson and the Association who joined her in this fight to preserve the history and legacy of the hundreds of freedmen who lived in the Staples community will not be forgotten.
The Association is looking forward to officially opening the cemetery once again as a reminder to the citizens in Staples, citizens of Texas and especially the descendants, of the history of this Freedmen Colony. The cemetery has been diligently cleaned by Marvin Merriweather’s son and namesake, Marvin, Jr. and other Staples residents who have contributed their time and equipment to dispose of the immense amount of trees and brush which have been cut and needed to be cleaned out of the cemetery. Dr. Todd Adlman, an archeologist, from Texas State University and his students will be running sonar equipment to locate graves that no longer have headstones and they will be marked for further reference. He is inviting anyone who has an interest in archeology, especially young people, to come out and be a part of this historical learning experience. I am creating a Memorial Book, and I am asking anyone who has pictures, stories, or memorials they would like to contribute to the Memorial Book, please contact me. The Memorial Book will contain pictures, recognition of individuals, groups and organizations that have made the revitalization of a vital part of local history of this Freedmen Colony Cemetery possible. The Association will be applying for a Texas Historic Marker at it entrance so it will take its rightful place in the history of Texas Freedmen. The Association is asking for contributions to help make this a successful event. Contributions can be sent to the Staples African American Freedman Colony Association (SAAFCA), at P. O. Box 3142, San Marcos, Texas 78667. My contact information is: Marilyn M. Johnson, President of the SAAFCA Board of Directors; email: email@example.com.