EDINBURG — For years, Lewis Callis, a retired mail carrier, pushed his lawnmower down the street for blocks toward a small, run-down cemetery, which is believed to be the Valley’s only black cemetery.
“Years ago this place was in great disrepair and my dad, Mr. Lewis Callis, would come out and do as much as he could,” said Clarence Callis, 63, who has at least 13 relatives interred there, including his father. “Several other people started coming out and helping and then that became the basis of the celebration here at the cemetery.”
One of the people who would see Callis pushing his lawnmower down the street was his neighbor, Valerie Ramirez of the Hidalgo County Historical Commission. When she found out where he was headed, she pushed to begin commemorating Juneteenth at the cemetery, which the city did in 1993.
Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19, commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery in the United States in 1865.
When the day, also known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day, was first commemorated at the cemetery, it was given the name Restlawn Cemetery by the Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church.
Prior to that, it was referred to as the “Colored or Harlem Cemetery,” or the “Cabbage Patch.” A state historical marker was dedicated at Restlawn during the June 2008 ceremony.
The city held its annual celebration on Saturday including a memorial service at the cemetery followed by a reception at the Dustin Michael Sekula Memorial Library.
Speakers at the memorial service included Mayor Richard Garcia, Mayor Pro-Tem Richard Molina, Alex Moreno of the Hidalgo County Historical Commission, and Kim Callis, Lewis Callis’ daughter who led the crowd in song.
“What you see today is not what it was; they called it the cabbage patch,” Kim Callis, 42, said recalling the thick grass and the brush. “It’s beautiful to see today that now it’s a beautiful garden of souls.”
Ollie Mae Heliton Gonzalez said she would bring her family to the cemetery to help maintain it.
“I would bring my kids out here and my husband would bring the WeedEater and the lawnmower just to clear this area because it was really bad, you couldn’t see anything,” said Heliton Gonzalez, 57, who has four relatives buried at the cemetery.
When she addressed the crowd, Heliton Gonzalez marked on the importance of spreading the word of the significance of Juneteenth and said she was overwhelmed by the people who had shown up for the event on Saturday.
“Maybe one of these days we’ll all fit a stadium,” she said to cheers from the crowd. “Or we could have a Juneteenth parade going down Edinburg’s main street to really let people know, to recognize the black community.”