Dig 'em up, move 'em out

Columbus Realty races to move paupers graves

Human remains from at least 40 unmarked graves dating back to pioneer days have been hastily excavated and reburied to clear the way for Columbus Realty Trust to develop a 6-acre tract of the historic Greenwood Cemetery.

Although excavation work at the site proceeded methodically and quietly for about three weeks, the company rushed to move the remains after word of the find began to leak out. Remains from most of the 40 graves have already been reburied in a section near the front entrance of Greenwood. An archaeology team will continue to search the site for another two to three weeks to make sure no remains were missed, says the archaeologist under contract to Columbus.

Columbus Realty apparently decided to speed up the relocation after the Dallas Observer began asking about the excavation. The hasty reinterment effectively squelched any public debate about the fate of the pioneer graveyard, and rankled one longtime cemetery preservationist.

"They should leave them alone," says Frances James, a longtime activist in historic cemetery preservation and a former member of the Dallas County Historical Commission. "Texas is big place. What earthly reason would a developer have to put more apartments over there, and over a paupers cemetery, no less?

"They wanted to get this done quickly, before those of us with big mouths--just trying to be civilized--raised any questions."

Columbus and the Greenwood Cemetery Association--the principal players in the land transaction--insist they had no intention of withholding information about the find. But after the Observer began asking about the graveyard, the excavation effort seems to have gone into overdrive.

As recently as last Friday, Columbus Realty and its archaeologist said they didn't even know how many graves might be at the site, or how long it would take to relocate them all.

But three days later--as word of the find spread, even appearing in The Dallas Morning News--developers suddenly announced that 40 graves had been found and would be immediately reinterred.

"Frankly, we were surprised there were that many bodies there," says 14th State District Court Judge John Marshall, chairman of the Greenwood Cemetery Association, who has relatives buried at Greenwood. "Once they were discovered, it was determined they needed to be reinterred as soon as possible. I mean, you can't just leave them sitting around."

The cemetery association decided to sell the land to Columbus Realty last month following several months of negotiations, says Robert Shaw, Columbus' chief executive officer. The 6-acre parcel fetched about $5 million, which will help the cemetery's flagging endowment fund cover the cost of improvements and upkeep at Greenwood "well into the 22nd century," Marshall says.

Columbus intends to build a mix of loft apartments and townhomes on 4 acres of the property, and hopes to sell the remaining 2 acres at cost to the city or some other agency for use as a tree-shaded public park, Shaw says. The deal is expected to close before the end of the year, he says.

Alan Skinner, a local archaeologist who has taught at Southern Methodist University, was hired by Columbus to direct the dig at the site, part of an undeveloped tract of the cemetery at Clyde Lane directly east of McKinney Avenue. He quite lovingly refers to the uncovered graves as "folks," and says, "Given the area in question, we know this is a potters field. We're finding it is not a very large field."

He says his crew has discovered broken headstones and a child's coffin with a metal marker inscribed with the words "Our Little Darling." In that case, Skinner says, the marker was easily matched with the casket. But because fill dirt had been dumped at the site for many years, it is unclear whether the uncovered markers go with the discovered remains.

Although state law requires archaeological work to be performed at a historically designated cemetery, which Greenwood is, the land in question was legally decertified as a cemetery when Greenwood officials deeded the property to Columbus, Shaw says. So the dig is being performed voluntarily by the company, he says.

"We want to knit this neighborhood back together," Shaw says. "We are dealing with the graves appropriately, and they will be properly removed."

The agreement between Columbus and Greenwood stipulated that any remains discovered be respectfully reinterred in an established section of the cemetery, and the Greenwood Cemetery Association is footing the bill for reburial.

Given the preliminary findings, cemetery officials expect the reburial to cost about $8,000, Marshall says.

But local cemetery buffs wish the dead--nameless and stationless as they are--could rest undisturbed.

During the past 15 years, James, 74, has been a zealous and informal leader of efforts to preserve aging and neglected cemeteries. She has pored through stacks of records on pioneer-era graveyards. When she first learned in September that Greenwood was selling some of its land to Columbus, James was convinced there had to be unmarked graves there. "I had people call me to say they remembered playing in the area as children and running between the markers," James says.

The cemetery, originally part of a Republic of Texas grant, was acquired in 1874 by pioneer Dallas banker W.H. Gaston. The Greenwood Cemetery Association took over the operation in 1896, and no documentation of unmarked graves prior to that time exists.

"The most I've been able to find are some minutes of a Dallas County commissioners meeting from 1850 that mentioned a $3.50 charge for a person to build a casket in those days," James says.

"Of course there are unmarked graves there. Many of Dallas' old, monied families bought huge family plots in Greenwood decades ago, and of course no one is going to dig up their dead to make room for more apartments," James says. "A lot of us think it's sacrilegious to move the dead under any circumstances. We wish they would leave them alone."

Marshall, himself an avid historian, blanches at any suggestion that the cemetery association has a disregard for the burial ground. "When we first began discussions about selling the property last spring, we did a painstaking search for records of the site. There was no evidence whatsoever of graves there," he says.

Wedged between noisy Central Expressway on the east and the trendy bars, eateries, and pricey new apartments of McKinney Avenue on the west, tranquil Greenwood Cemetery is the final resting place for several members of the Ervay and Akard clans, as well as other early leaders of Dallas politics and commerce. The cemetery also contains large, segregated sections of Union and Confederate veterans of the Civil War.

Greenwood was established at about the time when the city's first Jewish cemetery (near south Akard Street downtown) and several freed-slaves cemeteries were placed at what was then the northern fringe of Dallas. Remains of several early Jewish settlers were moved in 1956 to Temple Emanuel-El's cemetery, which abuts Greenwood's northeastern border. An early Roman Catholic cemetery also shares a border with Greenwood and is now maintained by the Catholic Diocese of Dallas.

"Some of the cemeteries in the area were very casual cemeteries," Marshall says. "They were on the outskirts of the city, and any number of paupers or pioneers passing through the area buried their dead there. But we have never had any records on them."

It was the brazen bulldozing of a freedmen's cemeterynear Central Expressway and Lemmon Avenue in 1990 that galvanized preservationists in their efforts to take a more active part in the fate of aging cemeteries in old North Dallas. African-American activists rallied when workers widening the expressway unearthed skeletal remains of former slaves and their families. The preservationists successfully fought the construction until the highway department complied with state law and removed the remains.

James was a large part of the freedmen's-cemetery protest, and is widely credited as the person who knew state law well enough to assist in halting the road project until the remains could be treated properly.

"There are a lot of graves around here that, in the eyes of many, just don't count," James says. "They're paupers, or prostitutes, or freedmen, or people who were just passing through. They all deserve respect. All I know is that everyone is equal under God's eyes.

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