In the 1930s, the good city fathers of Dallas, all of whom were white as the driven snow, decided that those newfangled horseless carriages that were getting so popular needed a better way to get from south to north and vice versa than the surface roads they already had. This was right around the time when the marketing geniuses of Madison Avenue (not to mention their clients in Detroit and out on the oilfields) had started pointedly suggesting that us independent-spirited Americans needed individual conveyances, so we wouldn’t have to use public transit with all the other riffraff. The fact that said public transit was cheap, in place, and quite effective was of no consequence; over the next few years the rails were grubbed up or paved over, the overhead copper wire recycled into alternator motor windings and the like, and the Car became King. It was only in the late 1980s, as both car and fuel prices skyrocketed into the stratosphere, that we realized the error of our ways and started putting all those things back, at hideous expense.
But I’m getting ahead of my story. When it came time to build the Central Expressway (later part of IH 75) through the east side of Dallas in the 1930s, it was discovered that the most efficient route was though a district off Lemmon Avenue that happened to be rich in cemeteries: Protestant, Jewish, African-American, and others. The easternmost of these necropolises was a small, four-acre tract, dating from 1869, that was given over to the graves of the local Black citizens — the so-called Freedman’s Cemetery. Since Black people had little power in the local area at that time (they’ve since rectified that), it was decided that the new highway would be routed through the Freedman’s Cemetery.
Now, it’s not all that unusual for a cemetery to be moved when society decides they need the land for something else. Believe it or not, it happens all the time — and so it wasn’t unreasonable to expect the Freedman’s Cemetery to be moved. But because African Americans were still suffering under the post-Civil War Jim Crow laws, and had absolutely no political power, this wasn’t done. They just built the highway over part of the cemetery, basically wiping most of it out of existence — without moving the graves. Most of rest went the same way during a highway expansion in the 1940s, and what was left was made into a city park, with no mention that the ancestors of most of the local African Americans lay sleeping under the grass.
This kind of treatment of the dead is outrageous, but it isn’t unheard of, especially for minority cemeteries. For example, it also happened at Kaw Lake in Oklahoma, when the company that was supposed to move several Indian cemeteries just moved the markers. Coffins are still popping to the surface of the lake to this day.
The worse thing about the Freedman’s debacle was something that wasn’t even discovered until decades later. The graveyard had, in fact, been desecrated. In many cases, the headstones and other markers were broken up and used as road fill. Nothing, I think, better reveals the casual contempt for Blacks on the part of the people who built the original iteration of Central Expressway. Bastards. It really irks me to see a proud people treated that way, even in death.
The idea of a Freedman’s Memorial Park at this location was agreed upon as early as 1965 by the city and the descendants of the people buried there, but nothing much seemed to happen for twenty years or so. Fast forward to the late 1980s,
even as we were realizing the aforementioned error of our ways regarding mass transit, and the city found it necessary to expand and modernize Central Expressway as well. This time it fell to the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT) to finance and oversee most of the work. Eventually they hit the Lemmon Avenue stretch, and found a treasure-trove of intact burials. Fortunately, TXDOT maintains a small cadre of professional archaeologists, and they jumped right in and got to work locating and rescuing the burials from the bulldozers and road graders.
From what I understand, TXDOT got the ball rolling, but they didn’t do the best job ever. Eventually (after most everything was out of the ground, apparently), the work was handed over to several commercial cultural resources firms (including one I worked
at for about 7.5 years, all told), and everything was pieced back together into a fascinating look at the African-American community of the half-century or so after the Civil War, which was very poorly known from the historical record. Eventually, the human remains were reburied in all that remains of the graveyard — the new 1.2 acre Freedman’s Memorial, which was dedicated just over nine years ago, in February 1999.
The Freedman’s Memorial itself started to take shape in 1989, when TXDOT, the city, members of the local Black community, and the companies that were interpreting the findings of the burial excavations got together and began working toward protecting the rescued graveyard site from the highway expansion. It took a lot of lobbying from outraged local civic groups to get it to happen, though. Particularly instrumental were Black Dallas Remembered, a group that collects and disseminates historical information about the local Black community, and the Freedman’s Foundation, which raised $2 million for the Memorial (which actually ended up being more of a park and sculpture garden than anything else).
I’ll show you the impressive fruits of their work, composed primarily of classic Texas Red granite and beautiful statues by artist David Newton, in the next entry of the blog. Stay tuned, eh?