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Advocates are fighting to save this historic North Dallas cemetery

Tucked between apartment complexes in North Dallas lies a 3-acre cemetery, rich with history. It’s called the White Rock Cemetery Garden of Memories, and in it rests prominent members of Dallas County’s early Freedmen’s settlements.

But as development encroaches, advocates worry that the cemetery could be lost forever – that’s why an organization called Remembering Black Dallas Inc. is seeking a historical designation from the city’s Landmark Commission to preserve the 170-year-old graveyard.

Sheniqua Cummings is a founding member and board member of Remembering Black Dallas Inc. She spoke with the Standard about why the cemetery is worth saving. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Thank you so much for taking time to talk with us. Now set the scene for us. This cemetery is in the middle of what seems like a rather rapidly-developing area. What part of Dallas is this, and what’s the area like?

Sheniqua Cummings: It is in the north Dallas area, just north of 635 off Preston Road in an area that was once known as Upper White Rock. So [there’s] a lot of apartment complexes and condominiums in the area. The cemetery itself is set right in the center of one of the complexes.

Wow, in the center of one of the complexes. Tell us a little bit about the significance of this cemetery and the surrounding area, especially as it pertains to Dallas’s Black history.

As you stated before, this cemetery was established 170 years ago as a part of Freedmen community known as Upper White Rock. The White Rock Cemetery Garden of Memories, as it’s now known, was designated a Texas historic cemetery in 2020 and has also been approved for a state historical marker. It, of course, is the final resting place of many of Dallas’s prominent African-American families, including Anderson Bonner, George Coit – of Coit Road, Henry Keller – Keller Springs, and Taylor Tarpley, and others. The cemetery is believed to be one of the first integrated cemeteries in Texas. So it has a very distinguished history.

And yet this development that you describe was built up surrounding the cemetery? Do people know about the cemetery, or is it in a prominent location?

It is hidden. You won’t see it unless you’re looking for it.

Wow.

You have to travel up an alley easement and then you’ll see it once you get there. A lot of people are surprised when they see it.

We should point out that the battle to save this cemetery isn’t really that new. I mean, back in the 1970s, as I understand it, this cemetery was almost completely lost. What happened?

Oh, that is correct. So between 1969 and 1979, there was an ongoing legal battle between a large corporation and the cemetery trustees in which the corporation attempted to acquire the cemetery land. Fortunately, the trustees were successful in their efforts to preserve the cemetery. However, that possibility is always looming.

Well, what is the next step at this juncture? I mean, you all have been fighting long and hard for this special designation. What’s likely to happen, and what comes next?

We’ve already presented an application to the city for the historic landmark designation, and we’re just going through that process right now of getting documentation together for that, having to have commission meetings, and we’re just in the middle of that process. So it takes a little time, but we will get through it.

What are you hearing from city leaders? Are they inclined to support what you’re trying to do here?

So far, we’ve had very good support from city leaders and, in particular, the city councilperson for District 11, in which the cemetery sits. Councilwoman Jaynie Schultz has been very supportive of the effort, so we’ve had her support throughout this process.

I know that there are other cemeteries, similar places that folks are trying to protect from the encroachment of development. And I’m wondering if there are any lessons that you and your organization have learned along the way that might be helpful to them.

One thing, in particular, is just to make sure you get out there and if possible, make sure the grounds are clear so you can determine that it is a cemetery in the first place. A lot of times people don’t know with the overgrown brush and what have you. On a more legal side, you want to go ahead and get your designations in place and those things to protect that area. So those are some very important things that you need to be able to do in order to preserve those cemeteries.

Why is it that you’re involved in this, Sheniqua? Do you know of any relatives who might be buried there? What is it that inspired you to get involved here?

For one, I do have family members there. But my goal, as is the goal of Remembering Black Dallas, is to preserve and promote African-American life, history, artifacts, and culture of Dallas and surrounding cities, and just to make sure that our history is included in the larger narrative. But I have always felt like there was a calling to do this work. The work and the passion that goes into this – I must say that this has been one of the most rewarding projects that I have ever been a part of, and it’s definitely been a labor of love.

Tell us a little bit more about that. And when you say it’s been one of the most rewarding projects, in what respect? Could you say more?

Yes. So I would say it is rewarding in the fact that knowing that I have been a part of and helped to save this cemetery, which I’d say is a historical gem for Dallas. No one knows about it. No one knows the history there. We’ve had the burial of L.G. Pinkston from Pinkston High School. He’s there as well. And then we just had a marker put up for Anderson Bonner, who was one of the largest land owners in the area, Black or white, [with] up to 3000 acres of land. He’s there as well, but nobody knows where this place is. I made a promise to the ancestors when I set foot in that cemetery that I would do my very best to make sure that their story is told. And so now, to have this outlet and others wanting to hear the story is amazing to me. And that, itself, is an award for me.

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