Friday, July 2, 2021

Paved A Way: Freedman's Cemetery


I first became aware of Freedman's Cemetery in the early 1990s when the project to expand Central Expressway uncovered a cemetery in its path. Did that stop them? Of course not. But it did delay them for several years while they dug up bodies and reinterred them elsewhere. RIP? Not in Dallas.

I'm reading "Paved A Way: Infrastructure, Policy and Racism in an American City" by Collin Yarbrough. The city is Dallas, Texas. I'm blogging as I go, using whatever parts of the book catch my attention. Today, we look at how infrastructure development finds a way to harm you, even if you're dead.

Over the past 150 years, Freedman’s Cemetery has seen at least three iterations of infrastructure development disruption: the Houston & Texas Central (H&TC) railroad, the construction of Central Expressway, and the reconstruction and widening of Central Expressway.
Paved A Way

I lived in Dallas for the third iteration, the one where they sort of, kind of respected the cemetery. Collin Yarbrough's book told me about the second, when Central Expressway was first constructed in the 1940s. Things were different then.

It’s estimated the original construction of Central Expressway in the 1940s, wider than the boundary of the H&TC tracks, paved over existing graves, headstones and all. Oral history suggests headstones and other grave materials were mixed in with the construction fill.
Paved A Way

What about that first iteration of infrastructure development to interfere with Freedman's Cemetery? Yarbrough fills us in on that, too.

The freedmen community spanned from present-day Uptown to the downtown Arts District. In 1872, a few years after Freedman’s Town was founded, the H&TC railroad came through Dallas on its way to St. Louis after significant coaxing from local White business leaders. The Central tracks cut through the eastern half of Freedman’s Town and just past the eastern edge of the cemetery in 1872.
Paved A Way

So the railroad wasn't routed right through the cemetery, only alongside it. But it did cut through Freedman's Town itself.

The City later turned the cemetery into a memorial park with a playground in 1965, with a granite marker being the only reference to the past and present life as a cemetery.
Paved A Way

So much for Freedman's Cemetery. Why didn't the Black community put up more of a fight to save their cemetery? Maybe because there was no Black community left. Freedman's Town, later called North Dallas, fared no better than its cemetery. The references to the modern names Uptown and the Arts District suggest that the lack of respect for the Black community there continued all the way to the present day.

North Dallas had a population of 15,780 African Americans and 5,505 housing units according to the 1940 census records. By 1980, those numbers dropped to 1,531 and 998, respectively.

A loop of highways around downtown continued to build out over the next few decades, bisecting the heart of North Dallas. Completion of the depressed east-west Woodall Rodgers Freeway in the 1980s separated Booker T. Washington High School from what was left of the North Dallas community to the north. The freeway also erased the Dunbar Library, the first library for African Americans in Dallas, and several churches in preparing the land for construction. A 1982 comprehensive plan developing a vision of Dallas in the year 2000 no longer listed North Dallas as a neighborhood—it was instead included as part of "Oak Lawn," a predominantly White neighborhood to the west.
Paved A Way

Would the same have happened to a white neighborhood? Yarbrough doesn't say, letting readers draw their own conclusions. But now you know why Booker T. Washington High School, that former Black high school in the Dallas Arts District, has no Black neighborhoods around it anymore. Neither does Uptown. And why, if you accidentally stumble on that granite marker in that park with a playground, and look up and all around, you can see no trace of any descendents of the people who once formed a thriving community here and whose bodies are still interred just under your feet.

All excerpts of "Paved A Way":
Paved A Way: "Dallas Doesn't Give a Damn About its History"
Paved A Way: Extermination as Government Policy
Paved A Way: The Battle of Village Creek
Paved A Way: Redlining
Paved A Way: Boulevards and Parks
Paved A Way: Freedman's Cemetery
Paved A Way: Deep Ellum
Paved A Way: Little Mexico
Paved A Way: Tenth Street
Paved A Way: Shingle Mountain
The End


glbeach said...

Interesting history - and the "upstanding" version of simply ignoring history. If you have not read it, I suggest "The Color of Law". A fascinating history of how the United States became segregated by government policies.

Mark Steger said...

Gary Beach, thanks for the feedback. Collin Yarbrough references "The Color of Law" in "Paved A Way". I included the reference in my post, "Paved A Way: Redlining".