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.

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Carlton Stowers
Contact: Carlton Stowers