By Vanesa Brashier, email@example.com
The Liberty County Historical Commission’s legal battle for access to the historic Branch Cemetery in Liberty continued in the 253rd State District Court on Nov. 7 with the Honorable Judge Chap B. Cain presiding.
The one-acre cemetery, located on Cypress Street off of N. Travis in Liberty, that holds the graves of a Battle of San Jacinto veteran, Edward Thomas Branch, and his descendants, is landlocked with access only available through a roughly 35-foot wide strip of land owned by Chance and Keli Ingram that separates the cemetery from city streets. Commission members are hopeful that Judge Cain will order the Ingrams to provide an easement so they can maintain the cemetery. However, Cain said during the hearing that special laws pertaining to cemeteries might eliminate the need for an easement.
The court hearing on Nov. 7 was to determine if County Attorney Matthew Poston has the authority to represent the Historical Commission. Richard Burroughs, the Ingrams’ attorney, argues that neither the County nor the City of Liberty actually own the cemetery. Burroughs filed a Motion to Show Authority demanding that Poston appear and prove his right to act on the behalf of the City of Liberty and Liberty County.
Before ruling on Burroughs’ motion, Judge Cain said some title work on the deed is necessary. The documents filed by Burroughs suggest that Branch Cemetery was owned by Wharton Branch, son of Edward Thomas Branch, with a reverter clause to the Branch heirs.
In December 2018, the City of Liberty provided a deed without warranty for Branch Cemetery to Liberty County. After the County accepted the property from the City of Liberty, Poston was asked to represent the County and the Historical Commission in the fight for access.
“I think you are obviously pursuing the County’s interest, if any, that is derived from the City’s interest, if any,” Cain said to Poston.
The judge said he is concerned that the case will become a claim for trespass to try title, which could prove costly for all parties involved.
“State law allows people to go back there. All they have to do is give notice. State law allows the cemetery to be visited and state law allows it to be cleaned, or whatever needs to be done,” the judge said.
According to Poston, those methods have been attempted and failed.
“In good faith, we have attempted all those negotiations. It’s only because they haven’t worked out that we are here today,” he said.
Poston claims the cemetery, which is fenced in behind a taller perimeter fence, restricts access to anyone wishing to visit the graves.
“We also believe there are a number of folks that are buried on the wrong side of the fence, so to speak. When the previous owners put up that fence, I don’t believe they were aware that these people, who were more than likely former slaves, were buried on the property,” Poston said.
If that is the case, Cain said, then the property needs to be surveyed and the interior fence that surrounds the one-acre cemetery may need to be relocated to include all the graves.
“Were they buried outside the metes and bounds of the cemetery?” he asked Poston.
“No, sir,” Poston replied.
Burroughs added that the cemetery was abandoned, which Cain disputed.
“If the good Lord came and those people all rose from the dead, I would say it’s abandoned,” Cain said.
MORE DELAYS CAUSE CONCERN FOR HISTORICAL COMMISSION
Liberty County Historical Commission Chair Linda Jamison says that the Branch family heirs all agree that the cemetery should be preserved by the Commission.
“We ran a title check with Tarver Abstract and found out who the heirs were. We worked on it for more than a year,” Jamison said.
According to Jamison, the Branch family descendants have signed away any claim to the cemetery and agreed that it should be conveyed to a government entity since cemeteries cannot be deeded to individuals and can only be deeded to municipalities, county governments or school districts.
“That cemetery has quite an interesting history. It should be evident why we want to restore this. No one else will ever be buried there. There are about eight people in the Branch family plot,” she said.
Ground-penetrating sonar helped historians locate around 14 other graves that were buried just outside the perimeter fence that surrounds the family graves. Jamison said that a previous owner of the property, the late Phil Silva, told historians that workers installing a pipeline on the south side of the cemetery accidentally dug up the body of a black man, who was of the generation that was born into slavery.
Through research, Jamison reportedly found information suggesting that the body belonged to Artance James Holts, Sr., a black slave who may have belonged to the Branch family prior to emancipation following the Civil War. A book published in the mid-1970s titled “Liberty County, Texas Cemeteries, Parts 1 and 2,” and written by Mildred Wright, discusses the Branch Cemetery. Silva was interviewed for the book.
“I have interviewed Barbara Holts White, granddaughter of Artance James Holts Sr., and she remembers walking through the woods north of where the present-day football stadium is located with her father, looking for a Christmas tree, and her father pointed out the Branch Cemetery and indicated his parents were buried within its boundaries,” Jamison said.
As the legal fight continues, Jamison worries that with each passing day more damage is being done to the graves by vegetation.
“The Branch burial plot is in such bad shape with trees growing up and uprooting the graves. It’s bad. It’s erupting the graves,” she said.
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I believe that Yettie Kersting and her family are also buried there. As a child I can remember my parents telling me that information. I also believe some of the Ratcliff family members are buried there as well.
YK is buried just to the west of the corner of Edgewood and Bowie curve. The Branch cemetery is on Cypress just west of North Travis.
My grandmother (who would be 121 years old if she were living), and was a lifelong Liberty resident, said Yettie Kersting and family are buried there. Yettie was said to have had a hat shop and, because they were so popular, was a great success. She was believed to have funded the start of what we know as Yettie Kersting Hospital.
My Dad leased the land adjacent to that cemetery back in the mid 60’s and put his race horse there for several months. We used to ride there with him to feed and water that horse and I walked around that small cemetery as a child. I remember the beautiful monument for Mrs. Kersting. Perhaps there is another small cemetery near that one. @ Donna…. who was your grandmother? My parents were Bill and Nelda Wilkey. We lived on Jefferson Drive.
Yettie Kersting is buried in the Bryan-Neyland Cemetery. There is a large marker on her grave site.
Cornelia Branch Stone is buried there. Contact the local United Daughters of the Confederacy chapters and the state UDC division, perhaps the Sons of the Confederacy. Stone was a (national) president general of the UDC. Maybe that organization can help with the problem.