Dead Wrong

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

At first, "The Freedman's Memorial" 10-page workbook and teacher's supplement looks harmless enough. A kid is depicted on the cover with his hand on his chin, head cocked, looking up thoughtfully. Inside, the books have drawings of old Dallas and a description of the long-vanished black community known as Freedman's Town in what today is generally north of the Deep Ellum area. The text describes how the town's inhabitants overcame racism and adversity in the post-Civil War South and established themselves in respectable businesses and professions.

"The Dallas Community of Freedmantown was a community of African Americans living in Dallas after the Emancipation Proclamation...This strong, segregated community thrived in freedom and in its sense of community," the booklet says in part.

Blacks in the Freedman's Town area of the city and elsewhere were subjected to incredible difficulties, including poor sanitary conditions, disease and poverty among other things, according to a state-sanctioned study of Freedman's Cemetery published in 2000. Records indicate that Freedman's Town's first residents, many of them former slaves or descendants of slaves, faced limited educational and business opportunities.

Records also indicate that Freedman's Town blacks were true pioneers. They were tough and courageous, persevering through terribly discriminatory and oppressive practices that were commonly applied to them by white Dallas. The Freedman's Town memorial was erected in the 1990s as a testament to those buried at the site and to the persevering spirit that they lived by.

The workbooks, which were paid for by Montgomery Watson Americas Inc. as part of a $50,000 donation to Dallas Independent School District, are supposed to be used in conjunction with field trips to the Freedman's Cemetery and to a Freedman's Town exhibit at the African American Museum in Fair Park.

But some Dallas County Historical Commission members who helped with Freedman's Town preservation efforts say the schoolbooks about Freedman's Town and Freedman's Cemetery should not be handed out as part of an educational experience. Instead of being objective and purely educational, the books--some 20,000 in print--are so racially charged, opinionated and light on fact that they should be dumped and rewritten, says Frances James, a commission member who attempted to get the books revised. She tried to convince the school district and city to make changes for months but was for the most part rebuffed, she says.

"It's more inflammatory than educational," says James, who is white. "They should toss it."

For starters, James and commission chairman Jeff Dunn say the text contains numerous "historical" passages that are not backed up by any source and text that goes beyond factual error. James says while her organization painstakingly searches for documentation to back up even the smallest historical fact before committing it to paper as a source of reference, the schoolbooks have statements that aren't backed up by anything except maybe an author or editor's personal opinion.

For instance, the booklet says cemetery land was given to Dallas blacks "because it was unfit for farming," and that the city designated the Freedman's Town area as "a safe place for African Americans to live after the Emancipation Proclamation."

Frances says for one thing, nothing shows that the area was unfit for farming. What's more, she says, she has records that show the original cemetery site was not "given" away by the city or anyone else. Records show that the land for the cemetery was purchased. Besides that, the area was outside the Dallas city limits, which meant that the city had neither the right to give the land away nor to designate it as a "safe place" for blacks.

"The truth is, the one acre of land first used as a cemetery was purchased by Sam Eakins, a trustee for the Freedman's Grave Yard on April 29, 1869," James wrote officials. "This was included when Ordinance No. 21203 was passed by the City Council."

Blacks did not settle in Freedman's Town because the city said it was safe, James says. More likely, blacks settled in the area by default after the cemetery was started. Segregation policies restricted blacks to "black enclaves," a state study of Freedman's Town says. James says she does not understand why the school booklet's author would not have referred to the documented record.

The author, Allison Neal, says the city's cultural affairs office gave her a packet of material that described the history of the Freedman's Cemetery and adjacent community. She drew her information about the site solely from that packet. Besides, she says, the text she produced was reviewed and approved by city and school officials.

"I didn't get that information or make it up on my own," she says. "It was in the material that I had."

The packet that Neal supposedly used as the basis for the workbook is still on file at the cultural affairs office. It contains no references to land being given away, and nothing says the land was deemed unfit for farming. In fact, the packet contained the historical commission's landmark nomination form that says Sam Eakins bought the land just like James says. Neal says that if errors have now come to light, then those same officials who reviewed her text are in the position to make corrections if they believe it is appropriate.  

"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.

"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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