Accidental activists

For years, Irma Janicek knew little more about Greenwood Cemetery than that her ancestors--many of them powerful businessmen from Dallas' earliest days--were buried there in a neat family plot. Occasionally she visited the cemetery, at the intersection of McKinney and Oak Grove avenues in the Uptown neighborhood. And each year, Janicek paid the Greenwood Cemetery Association $5--the annual dues each lot owner is required to pay for routine maintenance.

"My involvement in the way they run the cemetery was really minimal. I just didn't give it much thought," says Janicek, a retired commercial artist who lives in Irving.

Today, Janicek can recite sections of Greenwood's bylaws. She writes and faxes letters to other lot owners. She even made an attempt to run for the cemetery's board of directors last week. Almost overnight, Janicek's complacency about the 119-year-old cemetery has shifted to an urgent sense of activism.

Janicek is just one of several lot owners who has been jarred by a recent controversy over the cemetery's future, and discovered that tending to the needs of her dead ancestors requires eternal vigilance.

Her interest began last January, when she learned that Greenwood's Board of Directors had hurriedly, and quietly, decided to sell 6.1 acres of cemetery land to Columbus Realty Trust, a Dallas development firm. Columbus has almost single-handedly remade once-crumbling Uptown, building urban-chic condominiums and apartment complexes marketed largely to singles and well-paid professionals. The company wanted Greenwood's land to build a cluster of sleek, four-story townhouses, a health club, and ground-level shops and restaurants.

The alliance between Columbus, led by CEO and former Dallas Cowboy center Robert Shaw, and the Greenwood board, led by state District Judge John McClellan Marshall, was percolating nicely by the time Janicek and other lot owners found out about it.

Shaw was going to pay $5 million for the land. Marshall, an eccentric history buff who traces his ancestry back to John Marshall, the fourth chief justice of the United States, would rest easy knowing that the cemetery's sagging endowment fund for perpetual care would thrive well into the next century. The money, Marshall told the Observer last December, would fund long-needed improvements in the now-shabby cemetery, such as fixing curbs and gutters and installing a state-of-the-art sprinkler system.

All would have gone off without a hitch, were it not for the 101 gravesites a Columbus-employed archaeologist unearthed late last winter as part of the "due diligence" developers are required to perform before they can build on historic sites. Ultimately, archaeologist Alan Skinner estimated that at least 1,000 graves--most of them unmarked and filled by nameless paupers--were scattered among the six acres on which Columbus wanted to build.

The thought of building condos atop one of the city's earliest potter's fields (Greenwood is the second oldest cemetery in Dallas) seemed of little concern to Marshall. Although ample evidence existed in county deed records--and even in newspaper clippings at the public library--that bodies had once been buried on the site, Marshall steamed ahead, claiming that the Greenwood board could find no evidence of early gravesites. "We did a very painstaking search and found no evidence whatsoever of graves there," he said last January. "There were simply no records to be found."

Marshall's pleas of ignorance were key to what happened next. Claiming that the cemetery had searched records for burials and found none, Greenwood's high-powered lawyer and former Dallas mayoral candidate Darrell Jordan petitioned a state district court to decertify the 6.1 acres as cemetery land so the sale could proceed. The petition Jordan filed included a clause that the cemetery would remove and rebury any remains that might be found after the sale. State District Judge Candace Tyson, a neighbor of Marshall's in the George Allen courts building, approved the petition on November 1.

But state law requires that all remains must be found and relocated before cemetery land can be decertified. That is, unless the cemetery association petitioning the court can show that no burials were ever made on the land in question. Although Marshall and his elite law firm had argued that their search was exhaustive, a handful of cemetery activists--including 74-year-old Frances James and Duncanville City Councilwoman Judy Richards--found written evidence and even elderly residents who remembered playing among the gravesites as children. And their search took only a few days.

Almost at once, a wall of opposition formed against Marshall's tidy plan. And many of those who signed on for the fight surprised even themselves. "I have just gotten more and more outraged," says Jennie Taliaferro, whose father and grandparents are buried in Greenwood. In the last few months, Taliaferro took it upon herself to learn more about the potter's field, including the 2.5 acres the city deeded over in 1923 to the International King's Daughters, a 110-year-old service organization of Methodist, Episcopal, and Presbyterian women. With help from the organization's national office in New York, Taliaferro says she has tracked down a local chapter in Cleburne. "I've talked to the president, and she hadn't heard of any of this. She was shocked," Taliaferro says.

"Once I heard about all of this, I felt like I had to do something," she says. "I love that cemetery. A big part of its charm has been its history, all the beautiful headstones, even the fact that it wasn't perfectly mowed and manicured all the time.

"The idea that anything would be built right on top of those graves was just creepy and wrong," says Taliaferro. More people joined the opposition--including several residents of the La Tour condominiums across the street from the cemetery--and negative publicity about the proposed project followed. By early January, Columbus announced it would scale back its plans. The company instead decided to purchase only 2.7 acres of the land, on which no graves were found and which city records show had once been the site of buildings. On May 22, Columbus is scheduled to appear before the Dallas Plan Commission seeking a zoning change to allow construction to go forward. The development, according to site plans, allows for a four-story building no taller than 60 feet, and a four-story parking garage.

The additional 3.4 acres that Columbus originally wanted will remain untouched.

For now, that is. The section remains decertified, which keeps the door open for a developer to buy it in the future. And Marshall, who has led the cemetery association's board since 1988, has said there will be no move to recertify the potter's field as cemetery space.

"I think Judge Marshall's attitude alone about the certification shows that he doesn't have a real concern for what eventually happens to the cemetery," says Janicek, who attended the May 9 annual lot-owners' meeting with a long list of questions for the board. "I still want to know why all these apartments are going up in the shadow of a sign marking Greenwood as a historical cemetery. It seems more than a little ironic."

The sign Janicek refers to is an official state historic marker, dedicated and placed near the entrance to the cemetery in 1976. It describes Greenwood's genesis--founded in 1878 by early Dallas banker W.H. Gaston and named Trinity Cemetery. The name was changed to Greenwood in 1896.

Janicek, who attended the lot-owners' meeting with plans to run for the board of directors, says she was denied an opportunity to run because she had inadequate proof of her lot ownership. The cemetery's bylaws require the association's members either to own a lot directly or to be a legal heir of a lot. "Because I have other relatives who could also be considered heirs, I was told I was not allowed to run [for the board.]"

But she isn't close to giving up her fight on what she feels is best for the future of the cemetery--to be left undisturbed as a peaceful place for the dead. Janicek and others complain that in other, smaller ways, the cemetery maintains a general attitude of disrespect for the dead and the families who have placed them there. Indeed, along the back fence of the cemetery, a dog run with three Doberman pinschers--kept on site to deter vandals--sits directly on top of three graves marked with old and crumbling headstones. One of the graves is that of "Josie Berger, 37 years old." The rest of the aged inscription is difficult to make out. Berger's grave is topped with patchy grass, dandelions, and a healthy pile of dog feces.

"Those people buried where the dogs are, they're just nobodies as far as the cemetery's concerned," says cemetery preservationist Frances James. "I looked them up in county records. One was a well borer. One was a guy who made a living selling cotton-seed products. No one's around to speak for them. I guess it just doesn't matter that those dogs are just doing their business right on their graves.


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