Old times not forgotten

A memorial to Dallas' former slaves raises troubling questions over how best to portray the past

The Freedman's Cemetery Memorial, just south of Lemmon Avenue on the southbound Central Expressway service road, is already three-quarters complete.

The memorial, whose front façade rises oddly from the rubble of the unfinished expressway like a wall left standing after war, will be an enclosed "pocket" park when completed. The entry is a ceremonial archway, and the tiny park will be furnished with brick and granite benches, arranged in a circle around a sculpture of freed slaves.

When organizers of the memorial made a presentation to the city council earlier this month, there was a hiatus in the normal bantering of politics, even a strained silence in the room, as if people weren't quite sure what expression to wear on their faces. The subject of the Freedman's Memorial is linked to the desecration of graves, to the Reconstruction Era, to the enduringly difficult topic of slavery.

When the presentation was over, everyone was ready to clap and nod and congratulate and be done with it, but Councilman Al Lipscomb wagged his head and waved a big hand in the air like a flag, searching for words. Part of the problem is that whenever Lipscomb speaks now, everyone wonders who may be pulling which of his strings. He is still battling what seems to be the world's oldest, slowest federal corruption probe, trying to cut some deal to save his skin. The sense that he is enchained by his legal dilemma makes for all the more pathos when he speaks obviously from the heart about gut-level issues like slavery and how it will be portrayed in the Freedman's Cemetery Memorial.

"This is...this is entertainment," he said in a husky mutter. "When it's all over, you go like this [polite clapping]."

He got up from his chair. "Slavery was...it was hell. Slavery was hell."
Quickly the hubbub boiled up around him again, drowning him in murmur. He was still talking, but so was everybody else. Council member Don Hicks spoke in his defense. The mayor spoke in the memorial's defense, sputtering official conversational noise about appropriations and the public art program. In the snap of a finger the brouhaha had reasserted itself, and the moment had passed.

But Lipscomb had raised a troubling issue: How exactly should Dallas remember slavery? The Freedman's Memorial, after all, is specific to this place, to Dallas, Texas. Is the memorial going to deal with aspects of slavery that were general and universal and therefore perhaps less immediate and painful than purely local matters might be? Is there a way to remember how slavery was here?

Not everyone wants to remember it only as oppression and suffering. When Hicks spoke, he talked about how the victimization of slavery has been passed on "almost like a gene" from generation to generation.

Hicks was defending Lipscomb, but his remarks just as easily could have been used against him as an argument that the story of slavery should not be preached as sheer crushing victimhood. That telling of the story ignores the truth of African courage and resilience, and telling it that way may also feed the ongoing poison of passivity, despair, and the fear of life itself.

Lipscomb talked about how the history of the Nazi Holocaust is often depicted graphically, with photographs of the bodies and excruciating verbal detail. "So that it won't ever happen again," he muttered.

The Freedman's Cemetery is what remains of a Freedman's Town, one of half a dozen settlements of freed slaves that sprang up in Dallas after Emancipation. In the 1940s, when the expressway was being built along an old railroad right-of-way, black graves were simply paved over, headstones used as rubble to help fill ditches and low spots.

The existence of the cemetery was never forgotten, but highway engineers, poised in the late 1980s to launch a massive rebuilding of Central Expressway, had hoped there would be as few as a dozen graves that might have to be moved to make room for a new service road.

The more they dug, the more they found. A team of archaeologists working with the Black Dallas Remembered historical society eventually unearthed more than 1,500 bodies that had to be reburied at a cost to the state of between $6 million and $7 million. The archaeologists think as many as 10,000 dead were buried in the original cemetery in a period roughly from slavery to the 1920s.

The memorial being built on the ground of the old cemetery will cost $2 million, only $210,000 of which will come from city funds. The rest is being raised privately. Four of five pieces by Detroit sculptor David Newton, chosen in a national competition, have already been installed.

A portal through the arch at the front of the memorial is flanked by two dramatic figures--an African warrior and a female shaman who is the "oral historian" of the people buried here. Those two figures are mirrored just inside the arch by a black man struggling against chains and a black woman covering her face in shame after rape.

At the center of the memorial courtyard will be a figure that Al Lipscomb did not see. For some reason this one model was not brought to the briefing room that day. It is of a man consoling a woman after Emancipation.

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