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Grave Matters

On quiet evenings, before Malcolm X Boulevard teems with late-night life, Harold Williams climbs into an old pickup with a cranky transmission and visits the ghosts of the city's past. Caretaker of the 60-acre Oakland Cemetery, one of the oldest and most historic graveyards in Dallas, Williams takes with him the tools of his trade--a lawn mower, a gas-powered weed eater and a .38-caliber pistol.

As the 46-year-old Williams slowly winds his way through the familiar labyrinth of 30,000 headstones, many bearing the names of those who forged Dallas into a vibrant and progressive metropolis, he rarely fails to wonder at the rich history over which he is assigned to watch. Yet visitors to the all-but-forgotten resting place of bygone generations, he admits, are rare. "Some days," he says, "there might be two, maybe three. A lot of days there are none." In a silent nod to the political correctness of the day, he will offer no reason. But it is obvious.

Once proud and well-kept, located just a few blocks from the intersection of Oakland and Forest avenues when the area was populated by high-profile families like the Sangers and the Harrises, the cemetery is now guarded by a dilapidated fence and an entranceway gate that is routinely locked at sundown. Oakland and Forest have long since seen name changes to honor black icons Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and the graveyard is now the centerpiece of a neighborhood of quick-stop liquor stores, barbecue joints and too-much-time-on-their-hands youth gangs identified by the color of their sneakers--red, yellow and green--who jealously guard nearby turf. There is an isolated spot just beyond the northern edge that is favored by young car thieves who expertly strip away quick-cash parts. Call 911, as Williams has done regularly during his five years as sexton-caretaker, and response time often will be an hour, maybe longer.

But hidden inside the cemetery boundaries are reminders both wistful and upsetting, vestiges of a time when the area danced to high society's tune and was silk-stocking white. Confederate soldiers of high rank and deeds once viewed as patriotic, even heroic, lie beneath aging, breathtaking monuments sculpted by craftsmen from as far away as Florence and Venice. Many buried there lived in a time when the nation's racial divide was wide and clearly defined; a time when the Texas State Fair, held annually in nearby Fair Park, did not wince at the idea of designating one date "Negro Day" and another "Ku Klux Klan Day." In Oakland Cemetery, deep in the heart of mostly black southeast Dallas, many of those Klansmen are buried, outnumbering by hundreds the 15 black graves--many of them nannies of prominent families--found there.

It is a landmark that mirrors the beauty and ugliness of the city's history. Although there is hope that Oakland Cemetery will soon receive monies to provide much-needed repair and updating, there are no guarantees. Even so, given its location and low profile, the cemetery most likely will continue to be at best ignored, at worst neglected.

Which is inexcusable. The stories buried there form the roots of Dallas, fast-decaying signboards that point to its successes and its failings, its moments of glory and shame. It is the final resting place of many whose money, clout and foresight helped build the city. For those reasons alone, Oakland Cemetery deserves more attention than it receives.


Wandering into its overgrown grounds, one finds many of the same honored names city fathers have assigned to the streets and byways of Dallas. There is Edwin Kiest, publisher of the Dallas Times Herald before the turn of the century; A.H. Belo, son of the founder of the media conglomerate that today includes The Dallas Morning News and WFAA-TV; members of the Caruth family who once owned much of the land that would become the Southern Methodist University campus, North Dallas shopping centers and residential showplaces; Adam Janelli, founder of the city's Salvation Army; John Armstrong, developer of Highland Park; J.F. Strickland, who started the company that is today TU Electric; engineer John O'Connor, who oversaw the building of the seawall in Galveston after the infamous hurricane that devastated it in 1915; Portugal-born insurance company owner Louis Antonio Pires, who donated almost $1 million to establish the Buckner Orphans Home.

In fact, the roll call of names familiar to Dallas historians are many: Ervay, Thornton, Akard, Miller, Record, Minyard, Grauwyler, Cabell, Armstrong, Zang and Bartos. They include ex-mayors (Winship Conner, Williams Holland, Louis Blalock), a lieutenant governor (Bennett Gibbs), wife of a former New York City mayor and an ambassador to Mexico (Sloan Simpson O'Dwyer), religious leaders (Episcopal Bishop Alexander Garrett), entertainment luminaries (B-movie actress Dorothy Brannen Exall) and patrons of the arts (Mrs. J.T. Trezevant, founder of the Dallas Shakespeare Club). Individually and collectively, they signal the prosperity and progressiveness of generations past.

 

Too, there are markers that remind of darker times in the city's history. More than 2,000 grave sites honor those buried in 1918 and 1919 alone, during an influenza epidemic spread by soldiers returning home from World War I. At a grave site donated by a Dallas funeral home rests Santos Rodriguez, the 12-year-old shot and killed by a rogue Dallas police officer in the backseat of a patrol car on a dark and infamous summer night in 1974 (Dallas Observer, July 16, 1992). Just a few yards away, in the canopied shade provided by a tangled grove of trees, is the headstone marking the grave of Florence Brown, daughter of a Dallas policeman whose 1913 murder has long remained a mystery (Dallas Observer, June 14, 2001). And in a section of the cemetery that is predominately Hispanic, the bodies of two 19-year-old members of rival gangs are buried side by side.

The history, ancient mixing with modern, not only tells the tale of Dallas but also speaks to Oakland Cemetery's past. By the late 1880s, with the arrival of a railroad creating rapid growth, Dallas' City, Pioneer and Greenwood cemeteries were filling quickly, leaving only small family burial grounds and those constructed by organizations like the Masonic Lodge and the Order of Odd Fellows as burial sites. George Loudermilk, a forward-thinking entrepreneur of the day, began making plans with fellow businessmen to purchase land for a new cemetery that would serve the community's needs for decades to come. "First-class" was the phrase the promoters used. Designed by well-known engineer Benjamin Grove of Louisville, Kentucky, Oakland Cemetery would be built on bounty land originally deeded to a man named Thomas Lagow who had received it from the Republic of Texas in exchange for his participation in the War with Mexico. Years later, his sons would trade away another parcel of the 4,400-acre Lagow holdings--land where Fair Park today stands--for a team of oxen and a wooden plow.

When Oakland was dedicated on December 8, 1892, it was far outside the existing Dallas city limits. Among the rules and regulations established by Loudermilk and his fellow Cemetery Company partners was that it would be the city's first perpetual-care facility. Families bidding loved ones farewell could rest assured that the final resting places of their mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, would be well-kept forever.

By 1923, however, ownership of the cemetery was transferred into a nonprofit corporation known as the Oakland Cemetery Lot Owners Association, and a trust fund was set up for its long-term operation and care. A board of directors agreed that only the interest earned by the trust would be expended for salaries of cemetery employees and the facility's upkeep.

Events that the planners had not anticipated offered early signals that all would not forever be well. The stock market crash of 1929 virtually wiped out the trust fund, creating the need for sizable bank loans to keep Oakland in business. Additionally, the grand plan did not take into consideration that the time would arrive when all lots were sold and only a half-dozen burials a year could be conducted. In effect, the income meant to assure the promised "first-class perpetual care" would be drastically reduced.

Today caretaker Williams, the lone full-time employee at Oakland, operates on a budget best described as "Spartan." In addition to running the office, he lives year-round on the property, standing watch as its one-man security force. Aside from part-time mowing and general cleanup help he hires for $8 an hour a few times a month, he is responsible for most of the maintenance. Occasionally, he says, volunteer Boy Scouts, church groups and the Dallas Genealogy Society lend a hand.

When a rare burial is scheduled, it is Williams and a 74-year-old helper, who has performed the task for years, who dig the grave with pick and shovel, then stand by to fill it after the services are concluded.

"Back in 1960," Williams says, "I understand there was a full-time maintenance crew of 10. Of course, they were only being paid 50 cents a hour in those days." There has, he says, been no consideration given to providing him any kind of staff assistance in the five years since he was hired.

What, then, would it take to return the historic facility to the showplace it once was?

"The place badly needs a new fence," he says, "and, of course, we'll never get the necessary maintenance work done--mowing, edging, watering, trimming trees, cutting away vines--without the financing to hire three or four full-time people. And there are a lot of roads in the cemetery that need to be paved and even curbed if possible."

 

Now he is smiling, as if dreaming of hitting the lottery. "The board of directors has actually had an architect draw up plans for a new office and sexton's quarters," he says. "That would provide the place with a tremendous face-lift." Estimated cost of the new buildings, according to consulting architect Sally Johnson, would be in the neighborhood of $1.36 million. That's far more than is in the Oakland Trust. In fact, estimates for just replacing the fence surrounding the grounds would put a sizable dent in the fund, since the lowest bid has been in excess of $100,000.

With that, Williams walks behind the small counter that greets the occasional visitor to his office and points to rows of antique metal file drawers. In them are the 30,000 interment cards that provide information on each person buried in the cemetery. Virtually every modernly equipped facility today has such information on computer.

"I checked around," Williams says, "and was told that just to have the information transferred from cards to discs would cost $30,000."

That's $30,000 he doesn't have after paying for the monthly utilities, banking fees, insurance and dumping cost for the brush and limbs he clears away. "We even pay $360 per month to the city for something called storm-drain fees," he says, "and I don't even know what that is."

What he is describing, then, is a century-old business that has reached the point where there is a steadily draining financial out-go and precious little new income being generated. With no new burial plots to sell and few grave site preparations to bill for, the nonprofit Oakland Cemetery Lot Owners Association has become just that.

All that remains is the history, the legends, the countless stories that await those few who choose to visit. They, Williams says, are priceless. And with that he begins to tick off fascinating tidbits passed on to him by his predecessor, Howard Hooper, and from spare-time research he's done:

Confederate General Richard Montgomery Gano, he points out, is buried here. Grandfather of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, he was a minister in civilian life and is said to have successfully stolen $2 million in gold from a Union train at the height of the Civil War. It was Gano's father, historians note, who baptized George Washington. There are, in fact, 20 relatives of Hughes buried in Oakland. Family members of World War I Medal of Honor winner Sergeant Alvin York, capturer of 132 German prisoners single-handedly during the Battle of Argonne Forest and immortalized on the silver screen by a young Gary Cooper, rest in Oakland. So too, some historians insist, does the brother of John Wilkes Booth, assassin of President Abraham Lincoln. The Hobbys of Houston have relatives buried in Oakland.

In the far eastern corner of the property is a section where pets of the wealthy and eccentric were once routinely buried--dogs and cats, mostly, but also at least one horse and a chimpanzee.

Among the more colorful early-day animal rights activists to be found in Oakland is Ivor O'Connor Morgan, daughter of a Texas railroad baron-turned-banker, who, before her death 65 years ago, willed $1.5 million be used to build homes for the stray dogs and cats that roamed the city streets.

And if it's scary stories you prefer, there is the grave site of Dallas' Annie Lawther. She, according to long-standing local legend, is the white-gown-clad ghost that has "haunted" the shores of White Rock Lake for decades.


So, why, with its lure of rich history and scenic sculpture, has Oakland Cemetery been all but erased from Dallas history? Why, despite an operating trust fund of almost $1.25 million, has the property been allowed to turn into something more resembling a wildlife preserve than a perpetual-care resting place?

At least part of the problem is one only the boldest of historians and city leaders will straightforwardly address: location, location, location.

For all the claims of social maturity, the simple fact remains that many whites view the predominately black area in which the graveyard is located as a place where they are unwelcome and unsafe. They understand why the Oakland caretaker arms himself with a pistol before going out to mow. A member of the Dallas Genealogy Society says that on recent weekends as she and friends roamed the cemetery in an effort to record grave sites, they were made uneasy by the occasional sounds of gunshots from nearby residential areas.

"It is long past time to quit worrying about who lives in the houses surrounding it," says plain-speaking historian Frances James, Dallas' resident expert on cemeteries and a frequent visitor to Oakland, "and get busy restoring the place to what it should be."

 

Guide for several Dallas Historical Society tours to the cemetery in recent years, James has become increasingly concerned with the lack of upkeep. "There was one family I know of," she points out, "who used to go out there regularly to visit the grave of a son. The father always brought along a 300-foot-long watering hose because the only working faucet he could find was that far away from the grave site he wanted to take care of.

"And, it seems, every time I suggest bringing a tour group out, I'm met with new excuses. One year it was concern over fire ants; the next it was the danger of dead and dried tree limbs that might fall and prompt lawsuits."

She wonders also what will eventually happen to the magnificent sculpture that has weathered and begun to show signs of decay.

Sitting inside the small and cluttered structure that serves as office and sexton house, caretaker Williams is aware of the shortcomings and the criticisms. "Actually," he says, "most people who have family here are very understanding. Sure, they would like to see improvement, but they realize the problems we're facing.

"Frances James has mentioned several times that she would like to see the roads in the cemetery widened so the bus carrying her tour groups can drive through instead of parking at the entrance and having the people walk," he says. "Where does she expect the financing to come from?"

Oakland Cemetery, he says, is South Dallas' great enigma. Over the years, small donations from individuals and local businesses have trickled in but hardly enough to do more than keep the gates open.

"Most of the people who still come to visit grave sites," he says, "are families of those buried within the last 20 years or so." Generally, they are the descendants of Hispanic families who moved to Dallas in the '40s and '50s and bought up the remaining plots.

Like James, Williams is concerned about the declining condition of many of the cemetery's priceless sculptures. Standing in front of a life-sized gossamer-clad marble angel that has watched over the Armstrong family plot since it arrived here from Genova, Italy, decades ago, he points to the tiny web of cracks that are beginning to show. "Repairing the headstones and monuments here," he says, "would be like trying to raise the Titanic. In the first place, even if the money was available, permission would have to be granted from a member of each family." In the majority of cases, he laments, none is still living.


William C. "Dub" Miller can remember when they were. He grew up with many now buried in Oakland Cemetery. One day, he says, it will also be his final resting place, alongside late wife Nell, whom he married back in 1936. And he's optimistic that when that time comes he will be buried in a cemetery whose glories have been restored.

President of the Oakland Cemetery Lot Owners Association Board of Trustees, the 95-year-old former city councilman (1953-60) and still-active real estate executive does not see the current problems as unsolvable. "We're in the process of seeking out foundations and individuals with an appreciation for the importance of the city's history who might be willing to help us accomplish our goal," he says.

And while tight-lipped about any signs of progress, he hints that in the near future the financing needed for restoration and proper maintenance--an estimated $3 million--might be coming.

"One of the main difficulties we've faced in the 14 years I've been associated with the board," he explains, "is that we're now into the third and fourth generations of many of the families buried there. And times have changed. People today are too busy, too occupied with too many other things, to make a trip out to the cemetery to visit the grave of their ancestors. It's one of those American traditions that seems to have passed."

But not for Miller, who visits Oakland regularly to remember his family, who launched a realty business in 1874. "Today," he proudly notes, "we're the oldest business in Dallas."

He sees the frayed and leafless limbs of trees badly in need of trimming, the vines that have wound their way over headstones, the weeds that now hide too many of the more modest graves. Yet in his mind's eye, he sees the way it was. And the way he hopes it will be again.

"For years," he says, "our main objective has simply been to keep Oakland Cemetery going. We've shown that we can do that and have now set more ambitious goals. It is important that the people of Dallas, regardless of color or heritage, have a sense of this city's history." In fact, he says, the board has set in motion the process to file an application for a historical marker. It is something long overdue.

 


Another day has passed, and caretaker Williams is slowly driving along the mazelike roads that wind through the cemetery. Birds, noisy throughout the day, have settled quietly into the branches of overhanging trees. A rabbit lifts its head above the grass to stare in surprise at the passing human. A small fox, sleek and startled, dashes from its hiding place behind a tombstone and scurries across the rain-softened road.

The only visitor to the caretaker's office had been an elderly woman in search of the location of an ancestor's grave. All she knew was that his name was Peacock and he had been an Army captain during the first World War. Williams, after a careful search of his antiquated files, was able to direct her to the grave site. Another connection with history made.


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