Death Divided

I love strolling through cemeteries – the older and more overgrown, the better, of course. I’m not particularly ghoulish, though. I just enjoy the underlying history that cemeteries provide. Some of that history is relayed in tomb stones and monuments. Often, however, the history is contained beneath more subtle contexts: the layout of the stones, the level of ruin within the cemetery, the innocuous placing of a fence…

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See that fence in the background? It denotes the racial divide at Pleasant Grove Cemetery in Ladonia, Fannin County, Texas.

… that’s right – the South, which my website Red River Historian documents, still contains the remnants of segregation inside many of its cemeteries. Because even in death, the powers that be insisted that races had to remain separated.

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The cemetery in the ghost town of Cannon (Grayson County, Texas) became segregated after the Civil War. The segregation was denoted through a road that divided the two burial grounds, which is visible in the background. Before the war, enslaved people were sometimes interred with their white masters, but their graves were marked with wooden stakes. After the war, the first African American burials were also marked with wooden markers.

In the pre-Civil War period, segregated burial places were not needed, as blacks – most of whom were enslaved – were either buried without so much as a tomb stone, or were interred amongst their masters. There were some designated “slave cemeteries” in a few select locations – such as near large plantations or in the cities – but most of these burial places are no longer visible, as time, neglect, and outright disrespect have taken their toll on them.

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A wooden marker, most likely for an enlsaved person, at Kentuckytown Cemetery (Grayson County, Texas).

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This enslaved woman was interred with the white family at Vittetoe Cemetery (Grayson County). However, her tomb does not commemorate her name – it simply denotes what she was to those who owned her.

The few free people of color often confined their cemeteries within their church yards, such as St. Augustine Church near Natchitoches, Louisiana.

st augustine church grave

A brick tomb at St. Augustine Church cemetery, which was founded by Creole families in the early 19th century, in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana.

In the period after the Civil War, which historians call “reconstruction,” Southern whites were unwilling to see their former slaves as equals. Cities and communities set aside portions of burial grounds for blacks, but these “Negro Cemeteries” (often deemed “Freedman Cemeteries”) were completely separated, usually by fences, or hedges, or pathways. With little money for upkeep and many African American families leaving the South due to racial violence and economic discrimination, their cemeteries became less maintained. Eventually, many of these boneyards were razed by construction projects or were just simply ignored.

Dallas Greenwood Cemetery Sanborn

The “Negro Cemetery” near Central Expressway in the State-Thomas area of Dallas was bulldozed in the 1960s to make way for the expansion of US 75.

History is lost this way. Of course, that may have been the reason behind the neglect and disregard.

Yet, especially in smaller communities, the “Negro Cemeteries” are still extant and active. Black cemeteries are extremely interesting to me, as their very existence lends an aura of defiance against the southern U.S. social structure. Though the tombs may not be as elaborate as those designed for affluent whites, black graves are just as loud – they serve as the final and eternal stamp on the world, indicating that the person buried there mattered as much as any other man or woman.

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While simple, this grave of a black man in Tatums, Carter County, Oklahoma, makes sure to commemorate the person interred within. Tatums is one of Oklahoma’s historical all-black towns.

I plan on visiting and documenting many more black cemeteries. The southern, segregated graveyard is a fascinating aspect of history that tells a lot about not only the people interred there, but about the community in which they’re buried.

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Other Stuff That’s Good About Dallas

The new issue of D Magazine posits 119 reasons why it loves Dallas. Some of the reasons were a little on lopsided – for example, the article gives 6 points to Jimmy’s Food Store, an Italian grocery market. Then, it counts 39 reasons in the form of celebrities who used to live here. And for some reason, D Magazine claims that Dallas is the “Hollywood of Reality TV.” Is that really a reason to love Dallas, or to snicker at its wanna-bes?

All in all, though, it was a good list. I give it a lot of points for mentioning Jack Kilby (the inventor of the microchip), and for paying tribute to the Longhorn Ballroom. There is one GLARING omission, however – it said nothing of Dallas’ history, architecture, events, etc. So, I thought I’d write a little something on reasons I love Dallas, with photos, of course.

#1 – The Old Pioneer’s Cemetery in Downtown Dallas.

A wire-wrapped crib for the deceased Annie at the Pioneer Cemetery in downtown Dallas.

A wire-wrapped crib for the deceased Annie at the Pioneer Cemetery in downtown Dallas.

You can get an eerie feeling upon seeing this neglected cemetery. Sitting in the middle of some of Dallas’ most prominent structures, the cemetery seems to call out from a more peaceful, simpler time. But with planes droning overhead and trucks thundering across the freeway in the distance, “restful” doesn’t readily come readily to mind here. But I’m not sure the current residents of the cemetery would mind the noise much. After all, they constitute Dallas’ early civic leaders, business people, and benefactors, such as  Sarah Cockrell, James Latimer, and many members of the Stemmons family, for whom Interstate 35 E is named after. Because the Convention Center, City Hall, and other businesses threatened to encroach on the cemetery – the Santa Fe railroad had cleared several graves in the early 20th century to make way for railroad tracks – Frances James of the Dallas Historical Society worked very hard to make this cemetery a city landmark. Mrs. James is the reason for the next entry, actually.

#2 – Dallas Historical Society Tours

Mrs. James conducts the cemetery tours for the Dallas Historical Society. When I went on the tour, we visited the Freedman’s Cemetery in the State Thomas Neighborhood, and we also found the graves of the Millermoore family and their slaves in a backyard in South Dallas. John Neal Phillips, author of Running with Bonnie and Clyde: The Ten Fast Years of Ralph Fults, conducts the Bonnie and Clyde Tour every May. Ken Holmes offers tours on fun Dallas history and the Kennedy Assassination.  The incomparable Rosemary Rumbly weds hilarity and history in her tours of Oak Cliff. The tours are very cheap – roughly $45 per person, and includes transportation and a meal – you can’t beat that! By the way, the Millermoore plantation house, built in the Greek revival style and supposedly haunted, now sits at the wonderful Dallas Heritage Village, which is reason #3 why I love Dallas.

#3 – Dallas Heritage Village, especially “Candle Light” in December

The Millermoore mansion at Dallas Heritage Village.

The Millermoore mansion at Dallas Heritage Village.

An outdoor museum built on the site of Dallas’ first city park, entering the Dallas Heritage Village is like taking a step back in time. The buildings show not only a time line of Dallas’ historical occupation, but also demonstrate the diversity of the city. The most lovely event of the year, however, is reserved for December. The park is lit up with candles, carolers make their rounds, hot Dr. Pepper and popcorn are served. Each house is open to demonstrate different traditions – a pioneer Christmas in the 1850’s dog-trot farm; Chanuka preperations in the colorful Queen Anne house; and cooking tamales and sweets inside the Mexican-occupied railroad house. For five years now, I start out my Christmas season with a trip to Candle Light at Dallas Heritage Village.

Though there are plenty more reasons to love Dallas, these three are on the top of my list. But I could go on – Keller’s Hamburgers on Harry Hines Boulevard, served on poppy seed buns! El Centro College, with its campus in the middle of downtown! The 7th Floor of the Dallas Public Library! The HUGE aligator snapping turtle that swims in the lagoon at Fair Park and likes to eat donuts!

You can watch a lot of fun things from the parking lot at Keller's Drive In, including hookers and "exotic" dancers getting off work.

You can watch a lot of fun things from the parking lot at Keller's Drive In, including hookers and "exotic" dancers getting off work.

Hmm… contemplating these entries was so much fun, I think I’m going to give a “top 3” for Fort Worth, next!

Published in: on June 2, 2009 at 5:32 pm  Comments (2)  
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