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Old times not forgotten

The Freedman's Cemetery Memorial, just south of Lemmon Avenue on the southbound Central Expressway service road, is already three-quarters complete.

The memorial, whose front façade rises oddly from the rubble of the unfinished expressway like a wall left standing after war, will be an enclosed "pocket" park when completed. The entry is a ceremonial archway, and the tiny park will be furnished with brick and granite benches, arranged in a circle around a sculpture of freed slaves.

When organizers of the memorial made a presentation to the city council earlier this month, there was a hiatus in the normal bantering of politics, even a strained silence in the room, as if people weren't quite sure what expression to wear on their faces. The subject of the Freedman's Memorial is linked to the desecration of graves, to the Reconstruction Era, to the enduringly difficult topic of slavery.

When the presentation was over, everyone was ready to clap and nod and congratulate and be done with it, but Councilman Al Lipscomb wagged his head and waved a big hand in the air like a flag, searching for words. Part of the problem is that whenever Lipscomb speaks now, everyone wonders who may be pulling which of his strings. He is still battling what seems to be the world's oldest, slowest federal corruption probe, trying to cut some deal to save his skin. The sense that he is enchained by his legal dilemma makes for all the more pathos when he speaks obviously from the heart about gut-level issues like slavery and how it will be portrayed in the Freedman's Cemetery Memorial.

"This is...this is entertainment," he said in a husky mutter. "When it's all over, you go like this [polite clapping]."

He got up from his chair. "Slavery was...it was hell. Slavery was hell."
Quickly the hubbub boiled up around him again, drowning him in murmur. He was still talking, but so was everybody else. Council member Don Hicks spoke in his defense. The mayor spoke in the memorial's defense, sputtering official conversational noise about appropriations and the public art program. In the snap of a finger the brouhaha had reasserted itself, and the moment had passed.

But Lipscomb had raised a troubling issue: How exactly should Dallas remember slavery? The Freedman's Memorial, after all, is specific to this place, to Dallas, Texas. Is the memorial going to deal with aspects of slavery that were general and universal and therefore perhaps less immediate and painful than purely local matters might be? Is there a way to remember how slavery was here?

Not everyone wants to remember it only as oppression and suffering. When Hicks spoke, he talked about how the victimization of slavery has been passed on "almost like a gene" from generation to generation.

Hicks was defending Lipscomb, but his remarks just as easily could have been used against him as an argument that the story of slavery should not be preached as sheer crushing victimhood. That telling of the story ignores the truth of African courage and resilience, and telling it that way may also feed the ongoing poison of passivity, despair, and the fear of life itself.

Lipscomb talked about how the history of the Nazi Holocaust is often depicted graphically, with photographs of the bodies and excruciating verbal detail. "So that it won't ever happen again," he muttered.

The Freedman's Cemetery is what remains of a Freedman's Town, one of half a dozen settlements of freed slaves that sprang up in Dallas after Emancipation. In the 1940s, when the expressway was being built along an old railroad right-of-way, black graves were simply paved over, headstones used as rubble to help fill ditches and low spots.

The existence of the cemetery was never forgotten, but highway engineers, poised in the late 1980s to launch a massive rebuilding of Central Expressway, had hoped there would be as few as a dozen graves that might have to be moved to make room for a new service road.

The more they dug, the more they found. A team of archaeologists working with the Black Dallas Remembered historical society eventually unearthed more than 1,500 bodies that had to be reburied at a cost to the state of between $6 million and $7 million. The archaeologists think as many as 10,000 dead were buried in the original cemetery in a period roughly from slavery to the 1920s.

The memorial being built on the ground of the old cemetery will cost $2 million, only $210,000 of which will come from city funds. The rest is being raised privately. Four of five pieces by Detroit sculptor David Newton, chosen in a national competition, have already been installed.

A portal through the arch at the front of the memorial is flanked by two dramatic figures--an African warrior and a female shaman who is the "oral historian" of the people buried here. Those two figures are mirrored just inside the arch by a black man struggling against chains and a black woman covering her face in shame after rape.

 

At the center of the memorial courtyard will be a figure that Al Lipscomb did not see. For some reason this one model was not brought to the briefing room that day. It is of a man consoling a woman after Emancipation.

Her face is still covered, as if in undying memory of her violation. His face is grimly compassionate. On both of their backs are hideous snakes of scars left by floggings.

The rest of the memorial will include all of the mixed messages and euphemism to be expected in any public monument. Organizers of such things can't raise money without having a "donor wall" where the people and companies that donate the cash can come see their names engraved in stone.

Someone thought it would be a good idea to hold a poetry contest in the schools, so there will be plaques with cloying verse written by elementary students. No huge harm in that. Kids need to be here.

No matter how banal the various plaques and fixtures may be, the impact of David Newton's work will not be lost. The African figures in front of the portal are the kind of heroic statues a child could stand in front of and drink in and study and dream of and thrill to for the rest of his life. The ones inside the portal are very powerful.

But somewhere in the construction dust and freeway exhaust floating out over the half-built memorial, Al Lipscomb's question still hangs in the air. Is something missing? What might be here that isn't, in order to bring the experiences of slavery and Emancipation home to people who will visit the memorial in years to come? What was slavery like here, in Dallas--not somewhere else or in places in general, but in this place?

The memorial, which depicts slavery, is actually a monument to freedom, specifically to the years just after the war when African-Americans became "freed men." That specific period, the time of Reconstruction when the federal government showed a short-lived interest in the lives of the freed slaves, happens to have left behind carefully maintained bureaucratic records capable of providing the graphic detail that Lipscomb seemed to be talking about.

For example, just across the street from City Hall in the Texas Collection of the central library is a complete inventory on microfilm of the records of the Freedmen's Bureau in Texas. (For reasons that aren't clear, the names of the bureau and the memorial are spelled differently.) The Freedmen's Bureau was set up under the War Department in 1865 to assist and protect former slaves in their transition to freedom.

During the four brief years of its existence here, it was the one thin wall of civilized protection standing between the former slaves and their enraged former masters. Harriet Robinson, a former Texas slave interviewed by the WPA in 1937, said of that time, "We didn't had no law. We had 'bureau.'"

As microfilm scrolls slowly through a reading machine at the back of the library's seventh floor, the florid 19th-century handwriting of Freedmen's Bureau officials in Dallas and other Texas cities creeps across the fuzzy screen. The words come alive like voices.

The agents are sending back regular reports to Washington, cataloging all of the incidents brought to their attention since their last reports, laying them out in ledgers in the timeless drone of government drudgery. If they were doing it today, they would be plugging all of this data into Microsoft Access or a similar computer program.

On March 4, 1868, the bureau's agent in Dallas records the following incidents:

"William Spencer, white. Unnamed black man. Met him on the highway going to Arkansas, ordered him to go back to his old master. He refused. Spencer shot him."

"George Baird, white. Charity, black. Was tied up and got 100 lashes for asking Mrs. Baird to spare her child who was being flogged. Also whipt for begging that her daughter might be protected from the constant ravishing of a favorite blackman on Baird's place."

"Mr. Barclay, white. Betsy, black. No provocation--incapacitating her for work for several days. Knocked her down and whipped her."

"Mr. Low, white. Lizzie, black. Struck her on the head with whip handle heavily loaded with lead laying scalp open. Knocked her down and treated her inhumanely for wishing to leave him."

One pattern that emerges in these records, of special interest now in light of the Jasper trial, has to do with dragging. Dragging clearly was a favorite means of torture-killing here after the Civil War, repeated the same way, down to the fine details, in incident after incident. Within a few pages of each other, three incidents involving three different victims are described with almost the same words:

 

"Whipped him, then tied him to their horse tails and dragged him through the woods."

Another pattern portrayed in multiple incident reports is the cocked-pistol flogging:

"Beat him severely. While beating him held a cocked pistol to his head threatening that if he made the least resistance his brains would be blown out."

Even given the plague of violence in our own time, even though we think we are inured to accounts of depravity on the news every evening, it's difficult to imagine floggings in which the victim could not writhe or cry out while the skin was being flayed off his back.

On the same day:
"James Gray Holloway, white. Julia, black. Whipped her severely, pounded her with a stick and then tied her up by her thumbs clear over the ground. Suspected for taking some flour."

"James Gray Holloway, white. Martha Holloway, black. Knocked her down and beat her severely, because she told him she had not enough to eat."

Most of the incidents have to do with freed slaves either attempting to leave their former masters or trying to draw pay for their labor. But some incidents, lacking even that much logic, seem inspired by sheer satanic rage.

"Went to a saloon where the freed people had a dance, drove them all out and threw several through the windows of the upper story, thereby crippling them."

"Shot him for fun. Said he wanted to shoot a damn nigger."
And these are all incidents that took place after the war. After Emancipation.

"J. Batchheldor, white. Becilie, black. Whipt and kicked for trying to procure her freedom."

There may be a legitimate question whether Dallas can even handle this direct and specific a look at its own local racial past. But the question Lipscomb raised was whether Dallas can afford not to look back.

After the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the celebrated Jewish author Elie Wiesel visited Kiev, site of a massive slaughter of Jews at Babi Yar in 1943. In his speech there, Wiesel turned to the mayor of Kiev and said, "Mr. Mayor, the problem for us--for you as for us--is, What do we do with our memories? We must deal with them, or they will crush us.


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