Discovery of lost African-American cemetery not without controversy

Certified land survey: Large section lies beneath homeowner’s backyard

SAN ANTONIO – Finding a lost African-American cemetery in 2018 was a major discovery for the descendants of those buried there in the years following the Civil War.

Based on the original plat of the Northern Hills subdivision, a developer in 1980 was aware the cemetery was there, so homes were built around the site.

The subdivision plat that surrounds the Hockley-Clay Cemetery.
The subdivision plat that surrounds the Hockley-Clay Cemetery. (KSAT)

However, 40 years later, a certified land survey confirms what archaeologists believed: a fence, built later by prior homeowners, cut through part of the cemetery.

Everett Fly, a nationally-recognized landscape architect known for his preservation work, said the survey shows the fence was at an angle so that it encroached on more than 861 square feet into one backyard, but more so into the neighboring backyard by more than 5,000 square feet.

A copy of the certified land survey for the Hockley-Clay Cemetery.
A copy of the certified land survey for the Hockley-Clay Cemetery. (KSAT)

Fly said archaeologists believe there could be gravesites below the largest section, behind a home belonging to Christopher Mendoza.

Velmil Clay, one of the descendants, said he recalls as a child seeing one gravesite in the northwest corner.

When he went back, Clay said, “There was a storage unit sitting where his grave is.”

Growing up, he’d lost track of where the cemetery actually was, like many of the other descendants.

Clay said he also worries perhaps his father and three uncles are in that backyard as well.

Fly said that storage unit belongs to Mendoza.

Mendoza told KSAT 12 News he’ll likely be seeking legal advice to sue whoever is responsible for not telling him about the situation two and a half years ago when he bought the house.

“Without a doubt,” Mendoza said.

Mendoza said he also has mixed feelings about the descendants wanting to reclaim the land.

“I feel like if it was something they really cared about, they should have attended to it a long time ago rather than just now,” Mendoza said. “After five or six generations of people doing nothing about it, now it’s an issue.”

Mendoza’s neighbor, Brian Hackenberg, who has lived in Northern Hills for 20 years, said he was aware the cemetery was back there when he bought his house.

Hackenberg, who has been following KSAT 12′s coverage since the cemetery was found, said he was surprised to learn the site extended more than 800 feet into his backyard.

He said given it’s only one corner, he’s not as concerned about the situation as Mendoza is right now.

Fly said talks are ongoing about the removal of the fence.

A roundtable discussion is set for 10 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 11 at Northern Hills Elementary School on Higgins Road, which also borders the cemetery.

Helping to kick off Dream Week honoring Martin Luther King Jr., the discussion will highlight its history and significance, and that of the African Americans in the area.

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