Freedman's Cemetery Has a History as Complicated as its Buried Members
Published: Monday, March 4, 2013
Updated: Monday, March 4, 2013 15:03
You may not notice the bronze sculptures protecting the bumpy plot of grass nestled between Central Expressway, a Wal-Mart, and Lemmon Avenue. But this is Freedman’s Cemetery
“As we are, they once were, and as they are, we soon shall be,” said Donald Payton, president of the African American Genealogy Interest Group, a branch of the Dallas Genealogical Society, one day recently while walking around the cemetery.
He’s referring to the thousands of African Americans who gathered here to start a new life after the Civil War. In the following years, they built a buzzing neighborhood of shotgun style homes, lively churches and saloons described like “the devil’s rest stop on Earth.” They called it Freedman’s town, and all that remains is the unmarked cemetery where Payton stood.
“Most of my history on the blacks has come through the cemeteries,” said Frances James, dubbed the “Cemetery Lady” of Dallas due to her passion for cemetery preservation.
She said that it’s difficult finding historical records about the history of African Americans in Dallas, or talking to the black community about their past. If she has a question, she’ll call Payton.
Both Payton and James served on The Dallas County Historical Commission when Freedman’s Cemetery was threatened by the widening of North Central Expressway in the 1990s.
Back in the 1920s, Dallas City Planner George E. Kessler purchased The Houston and Texas Central Railroad (H&TC) and the Texas and Pacific Railroad (T&P), which ran through the heart of Freedman’s Town. By the 1940s, the railroad and the homes of 1,500 African Americans were replaced by the city’s first freeway. When plans to expand the freeway 50 years later, in the 1990s, were disrupted by the discovery of a body, the city realized they had paved over an acre’s worth of Freedman’s Cemetery.
When Payton and James heard about the in 1990s, the two organized a community group to help convince The Texas State Highway Department to recognize the land as a cemetery.
In Texas, it’s illegal to build over burial grounds unless the bodies are properly moved, but Freedman’s Cemetery is not your ordinary cemetery. Since the freedmen coming out of slavery could not afford tombstones, most of the graves were marked with crosses and small meaningful objects. Only a few graves had headstones.
James was determined to find evidence of the cemetery’s existence. As she walked along the fence that divides Freedman’s Cemetery from the neighboring Jewish cemetery, she found exactly what she needed hidden in the vines.
“I stumbled upon a stone,” she said. “They thought they had moved all the stones, but I found that one, and it’s still there.”
When James showed her photos of the headstone to the city, the highway department finally agreed to conduct an archaeological dig of the area. Archaeologist Jerry Henderson spearheaded the project and worked closely with both the Texas and Dallas County Historical Commissions.
“She went over the graves with her toothbrush and toothpick picking up the fragments going through the dirt,” Payton said.
The dig cost taxpayers $12 million and took several years to complete. When the 1,500 graves were moved and given proper reburials, the historical commission hosted a national competition to design a memorial for the cemetery. Today, visitors can reflect on sculptor David Newtown’s work before walking into the cemetery that has survived more than 130 years.
When James talks about her experience saving Freedman’s Cemetery, she unearths an untold story about its history.
She said that the one-acre plot of land purchased in the 1800s to bury residents of Freedman’s Town overflowed with graves. Even though the railroad established a 200-foot right of way, the freedman community buried the bodies, sometimes one on top of the other, beyond the right of way limit. When the highway department purchased the right of ways from the railroads, it was not expecting to be met by over 2,000 graves, many dating back to the Emancipation era.
While the tireless work of people like Payton and James preserved the cemetery, they now face a new kind of threat — treasure hunters. Under the assumption that the deceased are buried with their valuables, grave robbers equipped with metal detectors sometimes search the bumpy plot of land. Unfortunately for them, the only treasures buried at Freedman Cemetery are the rich history and memories of the freedman community.
“This ain’t King Tut, these were Dallas slaves,” Payton said. “No slaves were walking around with grills.”