Friday, volunteers tended Edinburg’s Restlawn Cemetery and painted Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church in efforts for Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service following last week’s freeze.
The city of Edinburg partnered with their Juneteenth Committee Chair, Village in the Valley, and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley to brighten two African American historical sites within city limits.
“Today the importance is to remember Martin Luther King, his contributions to the world, how he changed the views…of how people should be judged by their character, not by their skin color,” said Mayor Pro-Tem, Daniel ‘Dan’ Garza.
Even in drizzle and cold weather, community volunteers tended to the small graveyard at the western top corner of Hillcrest Cemetery.
“Every year on MLK Day, we typically work over at Restlawn Cemetery,” said Bishop Michael Smith, chair of the Juneteenth Committee in Edinburg. “But since Rising Star Baptist Church is also part of the historic African American community here in Edinburg, we decided to not only work at the cemetery but clean up and paint the church as well.”
Restlawn Cemetery, formerly known as the Cabbage Patch due to its size, was established in the 1920s and renamed to its current title in 1993.
At nine in the morning, volunteers turned the soil, set mulch, de-weeded, and raked the resting grounds. Three volunteers grabbed paintbrushes and colored a small water well display with flowers and the names of those buried there.
“The university has organized events to volunteer, so this was one of the events we volunteered at,” said Ashley Guzman, a program event coordinator at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. “We had 22 students come out today, some faculty and staff as well.”
“At first, the cemetery looked real bad. The grass was high, but now, oh God, it’s beautiful,” said resident Sharon Smith. “This is the first time we’ve ever cleaned up that we’ve finished so early…It’s amazing how everything is coming together.”
Inside Restlawn, the oldest unmarked grave belongs to Leonard Bass, who died in 1928.
“If it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t have gotten the historical marker,” said Valerie Ramirez.
The most recent burial was laid to rest in 2011, a brother-in-law to the late Lewis Callis. Two individuals believed to have been born during the era of slavery, Mrs. Mary Thomas and Leonard J. Bass, were honored with memorial slabs in 2019. White wooden crosses lay on 26 unmarked graves.
Most of those laid to rest are interrelated, such as the White and Callis family. One of the most notable members of the family is Jacob White, who served in World War II and had an American Legion Post named in his honor, and Callis, who was Edinburg’s firstserved as a chaplain for Freddy Gonzalez American Legion Post 408.
Other UTRGV student volunteers helped paint the trimming and windowsills of Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church a deep forest green to match the front paneling of the building.
Worshipers gather inside the church each Sunday, a testament to faith and community.
Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church, with roots back to 1938, has continued to serve the community since its purchase from the Moore Airfield Base in 1960.
“Most people don’t know we have this church here in the area. So by celebrating MLK day at the cemetery and here, it’ll make people aware,” Bishop said, who started as a pastor at Rising Star. “A lot of people are moving to the area. They don’t know that we’re here, but we are.”
For Bishop, preservation and representation are vital for African American culture, especially in the Valley, a predominantly Hispanic place. According to the most recent census data, only 1% of the Rio Grande Valley’s population is Black.
“My personal opinion is, I think that’s what Dr. King died for. He died [saying] all men would be equal,” he said. “The more we get the message out about African American churches, the more people know that this community is growing. It’s not just one ethnicity. It’s a multitude of people.”