Dead Wrong

Historians complain that a new text on Dallas' black history is riddled with errors

"If these are points that have been brought to the city or the city council or the school district and they've reviewed them and have denied problems with them, there's no authority I have. I can only say that if I felt something was inaccurate that I wrote, I would certainly retract it as a writer," she says. "...And I'm sure that the city would, as well."

James and Dunn say after they saw errors in the proposed texts they complained to Dallas school and city officials but their comments were deemed nitpicky and subject to historical interpretation. Even if that were true, James says, the student booklet and the teacher's supplement offer children unsigned opinions that not only charge "historical racism," they fail to acknowledge modern efforts by whites to restore the cemetery site.

The books imply that Freedman's Cemetery was intentionally desecrated in modern times by road planners who were either unmoved by the importance of preserving black history or were racists who targeted the site for destruction to conceal the fact that former slaves lived and were buried there, James says. Neither version is backed up by any historical account anywhere, they say.

Frances James says Dallas students are being misled about the history of this memorial site.
Mark Graham
Frances James says Dallas students are being misled about the history of this memorial site.

"Today, we recognize the community of Freedmantown because of the rich community legacy that was nearly lost due to historical racism," the booklet says. "The cemetery for this community and those buried there had been repeatedly 'disturbed' and paved right over for the 'progress' of state highways. This inhumane practice of ignoring the burial grounds of African Americans was unfortunately commonplace, even though laws concerning designated or marked burial places applied to all cemeteries without exception; these laws were disregarded."

Yes, it's true the cemetery was ignored and mistreated, but James says the blacks themselves who lived in the area also ignored the cemetery and actually built houses on top of some of the older graves. What's more, she says, the cemetery was never a target for an expanded road just because the deceased were black or former slaves. The route that took traffic through the property was expanded as demand grew, starting with the railroads in the early part of the 1900s. During the 1950s and 1960s cemeteries all over Dallas and Texas were commonly plowed under in the name of progress with no regard for color or creed, James says.

The Dallas Convention Center, James says, was built on top of a massive white cemetery where (apologies to the movie Poltergeist) they moved the headstones but left the bodies. When relatives of the deceased learned that their dearly departed were more than 6 feet under, they were, and still are, furious.

Dunn points out that even a Texas hero, Y.P. Alsbury, a San Jacinto Battle veteran, and members of his family (whites) in the 1960s were permanently interred under the concrete and whizzing traffic of Interstate 10 near San Antonio. It seems that the roadwork crews just tossed the Alsbury family headstones and the historical marker off to the side of the planned freeway in the 1960s and went ahead with their work.

The Freedman's Cemetery booklet says that in 1989 Black Dallas Remembered raised questions about how the widening of Central Expressway would further damage the Freedman's site. James says that Black Dallas Remembered did take up the cause but only after the county's historical commission started nagging the city with concerns about how an expanded freeway and another project would affect the Freedman's Cemetery site. The booklet also says the destruction of the cemetery made huge news all over the planet.

"The sad history of Freedman's Cemetery then became national and international news of American discrimination at its worst," the booklet says.

The only reference to large-scale news coverage in materials used by Neal is a batch of pages from an unidentified publication related to the cemetery project. None of the materials say the world was told that the Freedman's Cemetery desecration represented "American discrimination at its worst."

The reference says, "The Freedman's Cemetery project has enjoyed global attention. American newspapers, including The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, have given this project major coverage. CNN News, Channel 8 and Channel 5 (locally) have broadcast this great story to the world."

School district officials who were asked to read the text for errors say that they just reviewed what was provided to them by the city. Montgomery Watson's representative, Vernell Sturns, said his company received the text from the city. Officials at the city's Office of Cultural Affairs said the work was contracted out to Neal. Neal says she has not thoroughly read the final version of the school materials but said if any factual errors ended up in the final version, she would support retractions or revisions. She also said the packet that is now on file with the historical commission may not contain all the materials it contained when she used it, which could explain the absence of certain source materials she may have used.

James, who considers herself an expert on the cemetery site and who has been a part of its preservation since the early 1980s, says she spent months trying to convince officials to revise the text in a new version or at the least include a supplemental text. They patronized her for a while and then dismissed her, saying the booklets had been printed and were going to be distributed. That's just wrong, she says.

"If 20,000 copies of something are to be distributed to the children of the DISD, it should be correct," she says. "Why would you not want it to be correct?"

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