The aphorism gets thrown around so much that it is almost cliché, yet it rings particularly true when most of us are confronted with unpleasant aspects of our collective history. But as a long-neglected Denton County African-American cemetery seems to demonstrate, coming together to memorialize a difficult past can also make our present community all the stronger.
In researching and writing about Denton history, there is indeed plenty to love about our kooky frontier past, but there is also a lot that should maybe give us pause to consider whether lessons have been learned. We still have a pesky problem with how we address or ignore our troubled relations with indigenous native tribes, and then there is the troublesome legacy of Quakertown, our storied African-American community that also faced forced relocation in the 1920s. More recently, the Confederate Soldier Memorial on the Denton Courthouse Square has drawn heated debate. On the front lines has been Willie Hudspeth, who has also pleaded with County officials to intervene on behalf of an almost forgotten African-American cemetery in Pilot Point. Thanks to Hudspeth’s advocacy, the Denton County Historic Commission is now thankfully taking steps to preserve and protect the site.
The initiative to memorialize the St. John’s Cemetery is welcome news, but it is the culmination of a long hard struggle. As far back as 1998, according to Jay Melugin’s book Images of America: Pilot Point, “The Old Slave Cemetery” had attracted the attention of preservationists and city council members like Arthur Jackson and Pearly Mae Simpson. Complicating efforts of historic preservation, however, is the inaccessible placement of the lot between two private properties, and some past good-hearted-yet-destructive attempts to “clean up” the overgrown cemetery grounds. Surveys of the post-Civil War burial site go back to 1975 but, as you can imagine, records are as spotty as the often poorly preserved burial markers. What does remain, however, can be powerfully moving. The inscription upon the gravestone for Josaphine Fink (b.1860-d.1892) reads: “I am treading [dancing] at a wine chest by myself. Be easy, children.”
Perhaps most remarkable are the stories being recovered and also created through this project. Shortly after he bought property adjacent to the old Saint John’s Cemetery, James White had an eerie twilight encounter while surveying the area. “I had just come through the fence and it’s hard to find anything, but it was almost like I was pulled to that. And then when I read it, most of the tombstones aren’t very legible, but this one was laying face up. The stone is white and its says ‘J.D. White, Brother.’ My name is J.D. White,” he said. “I guess you can say you got the chill factor when you walk into a cemetery and see your own name and you probably really weren’t supposed to find it. So, something else is at play. It really moved me, though.”
Seeing such a variety of people come together to help recover this neglected piece of Denton County history is an amazing reminder of the good that we can accomplish together as a community. “It’s much more than just a cemetery,” affirms Denton County Commissioner Andy Eads, “It’s really about telling the story of people, of our residents of Denton County.” If you or your civic group want to be a part of this recovery, contact the Denton County Office of History and Culture to volunteer during one of their Saturday work days at the Saint John’s Cemetery. We may not be able to change the past, but we certainly can take some responsibility for what we do in the present to insure a better future for ourselves and for our beloved community.
Shaun Treat is a former professor at the University of North Texas and founder of the Denton Haunts historical ghost tour. Doc has written about numerous local places and personalities at his Denton Haunts blog, and is forever indebted to the great work of our local keepers of history like Mike Cochran and Laura Douglas at the Emily Fowler Library for their tireless work in helping preserve Denton’s intriguing past. Be sure to check out our local museums curated by the fine folks at the Denton County Office of History & Culture, and follow @Dentonaut on Twitter for local happenings.