The word went out quietly in August. A choice little wedge of land in Uptown Dallas, the trendy neighborhood around McKinney Avenue where real estate speculation is in high fever, was being made available to the highest bidder. Only a handful of the city's wealthiest developers were invited to tender offers.
The 6.1 acres were being sold by the 122-year-old Greenwood Cemetery. The second-oldest graveyard in Dallas was strapped for cash, and the grounds where some of Dallas' earliest movers and shakers are interred were falling into embarrassing disrepair. Greenwood's sprinkler system leaked. Headstones were tumbling over. An entire fence was listing.
Selling off land seemed the simplest solution to the nagging financial problems, says John McClellan Marshall, chairman of the Greenwood Cemetery Association board of directors.
The proffered land sat on the cemetery's southwest side, bordering the fenced-in graveyard but not part of the formal cemetery. No markers indicated that bodies might be buried there. In fact, the area had become a neighborhood eyesore, clogged with garbage and overgrown with weeds. Brush was choking out several majestic oaks, and packs of dogs roamed the site, chasing after early-morning joggers.
The cemetery board decided to "advertise" the land's availability, though not in the conventional sense. "We sent out packets to the developers we felt could make the best use of the property, and let the market set the price," Marshall says.
Five real estate heavyweights, including the Trammell Crow and Lincoln Property companies, jumped into the bidding. In the end, the winner was Columbus Realty Trust, a major retail and housing developer in Uptown headed by 40-year-old Robert Shaw, a former Dallas Cowboys center and protege of Cowboys quarterback-cum-dealmaker Roger Staubach.
By late August, Columbus and Greenwood struck a $5-million deal which was announced publicly two months later. Shaw's company agreed to pay a premium price--$19.50 a square foot--for the land. Shaw envisioned shops as well as luxury apartments with rents averaging about $1,000 a month, the going rate for other Columbus properties in the area.
It looked to be one more happy real estate deal, cut the way Dallas businessmen like them--no muss, no fuss, no pesky intrusions from neighbors or tree-huggers who might want actually to discuss the future of one of the few green spaces left in Uptown.
But as Columbus and Greenwood raced to close the deal by December 31, they made a grave miscalculation.
Before the land could be developed, Greenwood needed a judge's signature on an order declaring that the 6.1 acres was "decertified," meaning it was no longer legally considered part of a cemetery.
To get that all-important order, Marshall--who is himself a state district judge--and the Greenwood board of directors were required by state law to attest that no bodies were buried on the land. If any dead had been interred on the property, the cemetery was obligated by law to move the graves before asking that the land be decertified.
An abundance of historical records--many of them easily found at the Central Public Library--demonstrate that the seemingly vacant plot had been used as a paupers' field. The rich folks from Dallas' early days--Gastons, Akards, and the like--might be buried in the formal Greenwood cemetery. But beneath the land where Shaw envisioned his new development lay the bodies of hundreds of Dallas' less affluent early citizens.
Whether out of greed or haste, Greenwood and Columbus chose not to look very hard for evidence of graves on the land. The deal was humming, and there was no time, it seems, for such niggling details.
Instead, Marshall and Greenwood's attorneys went to state District Judge Candace Tyson, attested that they had no knowledge of any graves on the site, and obtained a decertification order on November 1. Almost at once, the backhoes moved in, clearing out scrubby brush, trash, and sickly trees.
Only after the land was decertified did Columbus Realty hire anyone to poke about for unmarked graves. What archaeologist Alan Skinner found should have surprised no one who had conducted a simple review of available public records. Within days, Skinner and his crew found the rotting caskets and broken headstones of at least 40 graves. The count grew to 55, then 101, and ultimately Skinner concluded that at least 1,000 bodies are buried on the land where Greenwood said it had no knowledge of any graves.
As word of the find spread around the neighborhood--and among the exceedingly small group of preservationists who specialize in saving cemeteries--the quietly crafted real estate deal blew up. Facing outcries from several quarters, Columbus and Greenwood hastily backed off of plans to build on the paupers' field. Instead, Shaw decided to build on just 2.5 acres of the property where it is reasonably certain no bodies are buried.
Those associated with Greenwood and Columbus still vehemently protest that they had never heard--had not an inkling--of the paupers' graveyard. Although some of Dallas' finest real estate lawyers were on hand to shepherd the deal through the courts and the city zoning process, none of that high-priced legal help felt compelled to research the history of the graveyard.
"We had no records to prove any potter's field," says Marshall. "We relied on our caretaker's research, and he knows a lot about the cemetery."
Daniel Hennessy, an attorney at silk-stocking Hughes & Luce who represents Greenwood, avows that there was no way for him to know about the bodies. "We're a law firm," says the Harvard-educated lawyer. "We're not equipped to do that kind of research."
Apparently it doesn't take a Harvard education to find the easily available records of the potter's field. It only took a few hours for Frances James, a scrappy great-grandmother who has devoted 15 years of her later life to saving Dallas' old cemeteries.
To James, the protestations of ignorance from Greenwood and Columbus ring hollow. It's the defense she has heard many times before when developers get caught trying to move in and bulldoze old burial grounds.
"I had been through this before, all the secrecy and trying to end-run the law," James says. "As soon as the light shone on them, everyone in this deal was crawfishing as fast as they could."
From their sixth-floor condominium on McKinney Avenue, Bill and Sandra Kincaid enjoy a lush view of the front section of Greenwood Cemetery. They bought their La Tour condominium 14 years ago, paying top dollar for a view of old oaks and antique headstones.
Bill, a state sales-tax auditor, often walks inside the cemetery. Sandra, a retired computer programmer, likes looking down on some of the only green space in the neighborhood that hasn't been gobbled up by development. "The people on our side of the building bought where they did in large part because the Realtor assured them there was zoning in place that would never allow development in the cemetery," Sandra says.
So it was with surprise that the Kincaids looked out their window this fall to see bulldozers and work crews sectioning off the southwest portion of the cemetery. Trenches were being dug, and trees were falling. Sandra began asking questions.
"Everyone who's lived here for any length of time had heard stories about that section of the cemetery being set aside for a potter's field," Sandra says. "About 10 years ago, the caretaker told us he knew there were graves there."
Greenwood caretaker Raymond Bouska, who has held that job since 1978, declined an interview, referring questions to Marshall and Columbus Realty Trust.
Sandra Kincaid asked around and learned that Columbus, developer of several neighboring upscale apartment buildings, was behind the deal. A company spokesman, she says, assured her that the company was practicing "due diligence"--zoning jargon for the soil samples and other site preparation Skinner was conducting.
Meanwhile, from her home across town in a tidy far-East Dallas subdivision, Frances James was conducting her own investigation. James, a 74-year-old retiree of Southwestern Bell, has become the grande dame of North Texas cemetery preservation, lovingly referred to by friends as the "cemetery lady." A former member of the Dallas County Historical Commission and Dallas Landmarks Committee, James is respected by preservationists for her tenacious research and knowledge of local graveyard history. She spends much of her time searching out small, family-owned cemeteries that have deteriorated after years of neglect or may stand in the way of a developer's backhoe.
James is slightly built, with a head of thickly layered silver hair and a pixieish face. She uses endearing phrases like "oh that guy, he's as slick as boiled okra." Her foes might have dismissed her long ago. But James has not wavered in her conviction that the dead--whomever they are and whatever their station while alive--deserve respect and a quiet resting place. "Texas is a big place," she says. "I've never accepted that these developers can come along and dig up a cemetery just so they can put up another building. It's desecration. It's just plain wrong."
In the past few years, she has battled with some of the city's biggest developers over freedmen's cemeteries and other forgotten burial grounds.
As word leaked out that a development was under way on Greenwood property, phone calls trickled into James' home concerning the propriety of building on top of graves. Though there are no markers now, James says some callers remembered playing in Greenwood as children, running between headstones and shagging balls in a section that was clearly some kind of graveyard. With her knowledge of local history, it only made sense to James that a long-forgotten plot could be located in Greenwood.
She spent a couple of hours at the Dallas County Records Building and discovered an 1878 document deeding Greenwood property to the city for a paupers' graveyard. "All of it was public, and anyone with basic knowledge of how to do a deed search could have found it," James says.
But neither Hennessy, who graduated from Harvard law school with honors, nor Marshall, who graduated from Southern Methodist University Law School without honors, apparently made the effort. Until James, Kincaid, and other opponents came forward shortly before Thanksgiving, the only public mention of the land deal was a short story in the October 23 Dallas Morning News by real estate writer Steve Brown. Brown, true to form, regurgitated the developer's spin on the project. Anyone noticing his story would have learned nothing about the possibility of an old graveyard.
Three weeks later, when the Dallas Observer began inquiring about the sale, the archaeological dig jolted into high gear, and the cemetery scurried to cloak the excavation in secrecy.
By November 18, Marshall had ordered the gates to the cemetery locked to the public. He told the Observer that day that the discovered remains would be immediately reburied in a vacant part of Greenwood and insisted he and the rest of the cemetery board never had knowledge of the paupers' graves.
"We did a very painstaking search and found no evidence whatsoever of graves there. There were simply no records to be found," Marshall said at the time.
Here are some of the records overlooked during the cemetery association's "painstaking search:"
On August 6, 1896, the Dallas Daily Times Herald ran the following story on page 6, column 3, under the gloriously sensational headline BURIED IN SHALLOW GRAVES. Pauper Bodies Given Scant Coverings of Earth:
Mr. D'Ablemont and others living in the neighborhood of the graveyard in which the paupers of the county are interred, which is adjacent to Trinity Cemetery on McKinney Avenue, two days ago lodged a complaint with the Commissioners Court that the bodies in that potter's field are buried in such shallow graves that the stench is sickening for a radius of 200 or 300 yards, and the people living thereabouts are afraid the unwholesome air will make their families sick.
Commissioner Barkus to a Times Herald reporter this morning said:
"I went out and examined the cemetery and found it quite as bad as represented. The end of one of the coffins has only a few inches of earth on it. A fearful stench came from the grave of a woman who was buried about the end of last February. The condition of these two graves satisfied me, and I declined to examine others, which are said to be badly in need of attention.
"I will today employ men and have these exposed bodies placed at a sufficient depth."
The century-old story lives in perpetuity on microfilm at the Dallas Central Public Library, where anyone can find it. A few blocks away, in the Dallas County Records Building, deed records from 1878 signed by Trinity Cemetery founder William H. Gaston cite the same tract of land in a sale to the city of Dallas. The growing city apparently was in need of cemetery space for the poor, and the State-Thomas/McKinney Avenue area was already the burial site for many freed slaves. In his deed, Gaston stipulated "five acres off the southwest side of said Trinity Cemetery is to be used for the burial place of paupers and indigent poor only." The land, he wrote, was to be preserved "for the use and purpose named forever."
The central library also has records on microfilm of some 15 to 20 deaths from 1914 to 1918; the dead were prepared for burial by early Dallas undertaker George Loudermilk and interred in the "Greenwood Pauper City Cemetery." The name changed from Trinity to Greenwood in 1896, when the Greenwood Cemetery Association took over the operation from Gaston. One hundred years later, the association--made up of the families of the dead buried in the cemetery at 3020 Oak Grove Avenue--manages it still, through its eight-member board of directors.
Besides the written records, there were opportunities to gather oral histories. Some elderly area residents--even some who have relatives buried in Greenwood and are members of the cemetery association--remember the paupers' section. Irma Janicek, whose relatives were some of the first buried in Greenwood, says she has always known about graves in the southwest section. "I really think it was something they purposely overlooked. Anyone who's been coming here for a while had heard of the potter's field."
Yet last summer, when the Greenwood Cemetery Association board decided to quietly sell off the land, it was as if the nameless bodies of poor immigrants, pioneers who had died on their trek westward, prostitutes, and many, many infants and children whose parents could not afford an elaborate burial, never existed.
None of the people had pedigrees. None had relatives of record to argue for them. A trip to the library could only have killed a $5-million deal.
By late November, archaeologist Alan Skinner had no doubt--he was standing atop a massive, turn-of-the-century graveyard. By the time he had discovered 101 gravesites, he was satisfied. He told his employer, Robert Shaw, further work would not be necessary. In the back section of the site, he expected to find at least 1,000 graves.
Word of the find was not official yet, but opponents--most of them La Tour condominium residents and members of the Uptown Public Improvement District--were ready to fight. Bill and Sandra Kincaid organized a homeowners' meeting at La Tour, inviting representatives of Columbus and Greenwood to explain their positions. Two TV stations showed up to film the meeting for the 10 o'clock news, but were denied access.
The deal was in a tailspin. Reporters were nosing around. Neighbors were calling Columbus. Marshall ordered the cemetery gates locked--a move that angered neighbors who enjoyed peaceful walks through Greenwood.
Marshall says the gates were shut so as not to "compromise the site. We couldn't allow people in there possibly getting in the way of the work." (The public might get in the way, but Chuck Norris apparently didn't. While the gates were locked, a crew from the television series Walker: Texas Ranger was allowed to film in the cemetery.)
As the scrutiny intensified, the cemetery's directors grew more defensive.
"We are doing everything above-board," Marshall repeatedly said. "We have nothing to hide."
But it seemed increasingly clear to neighbors and cemetery association members that Greenwood and Columbus had been caught. "If they didn't have anything to hide, why weren't the people who have family members buried there informed of this big land sale?" wonders Jennie Taliaferro, whose father and grandparents are buried in the main section of Greenwood. "We never got a letter, never a phone call about these negotiations. It just slipped right through."
Marshall says the cemetery included news of the sale in an annual letter sent to members, but that it's impossible to reach everyone. "There are any number of people who inherit gravesites that we never hear about. We lose track of them. We wouldn't have them in our records."
No matter what Greenwood or Columbus tried to say, people weren't buying it.
"You know, I don't care how hard they try to sell this idea, it's just bizarre they would want to build anything on top of a cemetery," says Donna Bonenberger, who moved six months ago from Euless to a second-floor unit in La Tour. "Who would want to live on top of a cemetery? I mean, what were these guys thinking?"
What these guys were thinking, according to John Marshall, was that something needed to be done to bolster Greenwood's shrinking perpetual care fund. The all-volunteer cemetery board of directors oversees a budget generated by the interest from a $1.3-million endowment fund. But low interest rates have allowed only sluggish growth of the fund, says Daniel Hennessy.
According to Greenwood financial records, the endowment fund will generate $95,000 of the cemetery's $110,000 income this year. Of that, the cemetery board expects to spend $36,000 on landscaping and $20,000 to pay its caretaker. Although the board anticipates a $10,000 surplus this year, other years have ended in deficits.
"The cemetery is rapidly deteriorating," Hennessy says. "It needs a sprinkler system and curb and gutter. An entire fence is listing and headstones are rotting. The cemetery association board had to come up with money to fund capital improvements. They had an obligation to make the most money they could for that fund."
It is clear during a quiet afternoon stroll through Greenwood--before the gates were locked to the public for nearly four weeks--that the place is suffering. Roads with names like "Peace Avenue" and "Truth Avenue" are rutted. Shaggy grass grows over the graves of decorated Civil War veterans and some of the city's earliest pioneers.
Early Dallas banker W.H. Gaston would likely be turning in his grave if he saw what shape his cemetery is in. He acquired the property, originally part of a Republic of Texas grant, in 1874. The Greenwood Cemetery Association acquired it in 1896 and has maintained it ever since. Today, some 20,000 people are buried there, many of them in expansive family plots marked with ornate stones.
The 3.5 acres that have now been dropped from the development plan include a section of graves financed in the early 20th century by the International Order of King's Daughters and Sons, a 110-year-old service organization that includes Methodist, Episcopal, and Presbyterian women. The group paid for the burials of indigent men, women, and children.
Just south of the King's Daughters' section is where Skinner's crew found some 55 additional graves buried under several feet of fill and garden-variety junk--old license plates, liquor bottles, aluminum cans.
Other graves were found directly east of the King's Daughters' plot. Skinner surmises they are graves of the severely indigent. Few markers were found, and the bodies were probably buried very closely together, he says. It is here that Skinner estimates some 1,000 graves may exist.
Marshall, who has presided over the 14th Civil District Court since 1981, is a man who takes his history very seriously. He proudly tells anyone who will listen that he has traced his roots back to John Marshall, the fourth chief justice of the United States. He enjoys knighthoods and sacred orders and belongs to ancient chivalric societies. In legal circles, he is known as an eccentric, frequently showing up at the opera and other black-tie events wearing the medals of arcane societies. Marshall's parents are buried at Greenwood, and he peppers his discussions of the cemetery by dropping names of the many early Dallas luminaries also interred there.
Marshall is perhaps best known, however, for his victimization in a highly publicized crime just over five years ago. In the predawn hours of August 6, 1991, the judge, his wife, and his daughter were held hostage for several hours in their University Park home by Lew Perryman, a severe manic depressive who was well known in the tony neighborhood.
Ten years earlier, Marshall had ordered Perryman's release from Timberlawn Psychiatric Hospital. Before the ordeal ended, Perryman had killed Deanna Smith, who was throwing her paper route for the Dallas Morning News. A Dallas Police Department hostage negotiator finally talked Perryman out of the Marshall house, where a SWAT team jumped him and took him away. Marshall and his family escaped physically unharmed.
Today the judge has sued his wife of 30 years for divorce and tools around town in a spiffy midnight-blue Alfa-Romeo Spider convertible. A bumper sticker on the back reads "WARNING: I BRAKE FOR ALL OUR HOMELESS," and a red velvet holiday bow waves from the cell phone antenna.
The day after Marshall and Columbus CEO Shaw had reached their accord to scale back the development plan, the judge sits in the conference room of Columbus Realty Trust's public relations firm dressed in a subtle charcoal plaid suit, a sharply pressed sapphire-blue shirt, and a silk necktie screaming with color. He wears monogrammed gold cuff links, a tennis bracelet, and a pinkie ring with a pale pink stone.
Marshall has come to answer any remaining questions about the deal. It is his lunch hour, and he has only a few minutes. "It's not as if I have nothing else to do," he sniffs.
So why did the cemetery association skirt the law when it had the land decertified?
The law is straightforward. It allows a cemetery organization to petition a district court for decertification if all remains have been removed from the land in question, or if no burials were ever made in that portion. The judge who is considering the petition can remove the dedication "on notice and proof satisfactory to the court," the law states.
In its petition to Judge Tyson, the cemetery association attested that it had no knowledge of any gravesites on the land in question. "The association has checked all its records which pertain to or concern the unused land in search of evidence of interments in order to comply with [the law]," the petition states. "No evidence of interments within the unused land were found. The association has done everything within reason to ensure its compliance with the [law]," it continued. "Of course, should any remains be found within the unused land after its sale or during development, the association will promptly arrange for the relocation of such remains to another plot within Greenwood Cemetery."
There is no provision in the statute to allow for removal of remains after decertification. The point of the law is to learn whether any remains exist on a site and to reinter them before a judge signs the order, says Gerron Hite, cemetery preservation coordinator for the State Historic Commission in Austin. A petitioner like Greenwood, Hite says, is obligated to take every possible step to determine whether graves were ever located on the land in question before the site is rededicated for a different use.
That would include doing basic deed research, seeking out old newspaper clippings and other historical archives, and possibly even talking to people who may have recollections of graves at the site. By Marshall's own admission, the Greenwood board did none of that--save for tracking down a 1945 document that confirms a land swap between the cemetery and the city of Dallas when Hall Street, which borders the graveyard, was widened. Although earlier records--specifically the 1878 deed signed by W.H. Gaston and the 1896 Times Herald story--clearly describe the location of the potter's field, no effort was made to find them, Marshall says.
He did track down a cemetery survey done in the 1930s that shows notations of "NSE" (no surface evidence) of graves on the site. "If there were graves there, the markers on them had long since disappeared," Marshall says.
In the interview the day after Greenwood and Columbus compromised on the land sale, Marshall denied any knowledge of the Times Herald shallow graves story. Had he looked for it, the story might have at least raised a suspicion of graves on the site before the parties scrambled to make their deal. In an interview several days earlier, the cemetery board's attorney, Daniel Hennessy, mentioned the 100-year-old news story, even chuckled at its ghoulish nature. But he says no one discovered it until well after Judge Tyson had signed the order to decertify.
"If you go back reading all those old newspapers, then sure, you might find something," Hennessy says. "We just didn't know there was a sensational case of over 100 years ago that would explain there were bodies there."
Marshall has grown increasingly weary of questions related to the gravesites. As if he is reigning over his courtroom, his voice rising, he says "what's your question? Ask your question...Look, in order for me to testify under oath, I have to have evidence. And we just didn't have it. You can pull out an old news story about these bodies, but where are they? Show me. You can't make something out of nothing.
"We had no way of knowing what was there until the archaeologist dug at the site. And no one else did either."
Columbus CEO Robert Shaw is not new to the friction between development and preservation. Some of his earlier projects, sited in the historic State-Thomas neighborhood, were the subjects of hotly debated rezoning fights.
He is a towering but soft-spoken man with a thatch of wiry gray hair and deep-set eyes behind bookish wire-frame glasses. In 1979, Shaw, a University of Tennessee graduate, was a first-round draft pick for the Cowboys. He played center and developed a lifelong friendship with quarterback Roger Staubach. Though substantially younger than Staubach, Shaw says the two hit if off immediately. "Roger always said I was the only center he knew who couldn't remember the snap count. He couldn't believe it," he says.
A hit to his already-weakened knees in a game against San Francisco ended Shaw's pro-football career in 1981. He was 26 and had played in the NFL for only two years.
Throughout the '80s, Shaw worked his way up through Columbus with Staubach's guidance. He started in a hard hat on construction sites and eventually became the CEO in 1993--the same year the company went public.
Landing the $5-million Greenwood sale was a huge coup for Shaw and company. At least one other potential buyer is still stinging after being left out of the loop. Uptown Inc., the managing entity of the Uptown Improvement District, tried to buy the cemetery tract as soon as its board heard of the proposed sale. The improvement district is made up of property owners, tenants, and merchants of Uptown. Through its board of directors, the improvement district funds public improvements and special services within its boundaries which are financed by additional property taxes authorized by the Dallas City Council.
Uptown Inc. Chairman Jack Irwin, an architect, says the improvement district's hope was to obtain the land and set it aside as permanent green space in the increasingly dense and noisy neighborhood. "We had in mind a refuge, our own mini-Central Park," Irwin says. Irwin declined to discuss details of the proposal or to take any position on Columbus' plans for the space. But in an August 29 letter to Greenwood Cemetery attorney Darrell Jordan, Irwin laid out the improvement district's proposal, including establishing an annuity to fund the needs of the cemetery over time and deed-restricting the tract as open space that could never be sold or developed.
The improvement district did not offer a dollar amount for the land, instead requesting a 180-day exclusive discussion period with the cemetery association during which the two could arrive at a selling price. As evidence of its good faith, Uptown Inc. included a $10,000 check, noting that should the association decide against its proposal, the money need not be refunded. "...the Association is free to use this money now for maintenance of the cemetery," Irwin wrote.
In a brief reply to Irwin on September 13, Jordan returned the $10,000. The cemetery board, Jordan wrote, "will only consider offers to purchase the tract for a price certain." Jordan's co-partner at Hughes & Luce, Daniel Hennessy, says the cemetery board never considered the improvement district's a true proposal.
An improvement district member who asked to remain anonymous and is still smarting about the cemetery's brush-off says the attorneys' coy handling of the land deal sparked a bidding war on the street which drove up the price to a level out of reach for a nonprofit concern like the Improvement District.
"You've got Darrell Jordan, who represents the Cotton Bowl and was a mayoral candidate, out there shopping this land around, and every day the price inches up a little higher," the improvement district member says. "I don't find a lot of fault with the cemetery association trying to make a reasonable profit on the deal. But to drive the price up to a point where people with a reasonable plan for the property like Uptown Inc. couldn't even negotiate was unconscionable."
Robert Shaw is sitting in an Uptown neighborhood cafe, conducting a post-mortem of the Greenwood-Columbus deal over a breakfast of raspberry scones and lots of coffee. In his typically composed style, Shaw says his scaled-back plans are not so disappointing. It's a kind of "you win some, you lose some" position that the chairman of a corporation worth $400 million must take sometimes.
Besides, he says, "the bottom line is, we all won. The cemetery association gets a half-loaf instead of a whole, but they'll still be able to substantially add to their perpetual care fund. The preservationists and the neighbors get three and a half acres of open space with some beautiful trees. And Columbus gets to add a piece toward improvement of McKinney Avenue."
Although the paupers' graves in Greenwood were disturbed, Shaw is relieved that none of the remains will require disinterment. In fact, he says, Skinner--who is currently completing an archaeological report on the site--did not open any caskets or disturb the site any more than absolutely necessary.
"It turned out to be a difficult situation, but our archaeologist had to do his work in order for us to know what was there," Shaw says.
As for whether anyone really knew of the human remains on the site before the bulldozers moved in, Shaw says only this: "There was a business strategy at work here for the seller. I mean, these are reputable, good people doing their best. But if you think about it, it was in their interest not to know [of the gravesites]."
Five hours later, John Allums, vice president of development for Columbus, and Skinner conduct a final tour of the site for interested La Tour residents. It is a balmy day in mid-December, unseasonably warm, and 14 La Tour homeowners trudge through the mud. Tiny fuchsia-colored flags attached to wire poles flap in the breeze, marking the 101 graves unearthed in the dig. Skinner, an affable man in a gimme cap and faded jeans with mud-encrusted hems, patiently outlines his discoveries.
Most of the caskets are made of cedar. Very few casket lids were found. Some of the coffins are hinged, a sign of some income or status. Nearly all of the caskets found in the potter's field, behind the King's Daughters' section, had nails--definitely a sign of less income, Skinner says.
If you look closely and with Skinner's direction, you can make out the outlines of several tiny caskets. Many babies and young children are buried here. In the King's Daughters' area, the crew found a metal marker with the inscription "Our Little Darling."
Sandra and Bill Kincaid are with the La Tour group, at the front of the line and peering down into each trench. Cynthia Keheley, an Uptown neighborhood booster and wife of former assistant city manager Cliff Keheley, is there too, peppering Allums and Skinner with questions.
"And how do you know, are you absolutely sure, there are no bodies in those front two and a half acres?" Keheley asks.
"As sure as we can be, ma'am," Allums responds, and then describes the early maps he has at his office showing that commercial buildings once stood on the site.
Since the December 13 cemetery tour, Skinner's crew has filled in the trenches. Columbus, which had already cleared out the trash and weeds, has committed to returning the grounds to reasonably neat condition. Pending the city's approval of a requested zoning change, Columbus will begin preparing its smaller site for development, Allums says. The cemetery gates are once again open to the public.
Meanwhile, the leftover 3.5 acres lie fallow, undisturbed--for now. The land remains decertified as cemetery space, and Marshall has said the Greenwood board will take no action to change it back. That sets the stage, of course, for some other developer, at some other time, to squeeze in. And the Greenwood preservationists fully expect a replay of the fall of 1996.
Frances James, along for the final cemetery tour, knows the drill. These folks may be dead and buried, but in Dallas, they aren't really safe.
Says James, smiling wryly: "I tell people all the time, if you're going to die in Dallas, you'd better get cremated. It's the only way to be sure you'll rest in peace.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.