- Associated Press - Monday, March 28, 2016

PILOT POINT, Texas (AP) - Crushed brown leaves crackle under the feet of 15 volunteers who’ve come to a site just southwest of Pilot Point on a cool Saturday morning to clean an abandoned cemetery.

The Denton Record-Chronicle (https://bit.ly/1UqhVxL ) reports beyond fallen brush and old tree branches are the final resting places of men, women and children who died between 1880s and 1910s, according to county documents.

In the midst of the disarrayed landscape it’s quiet, peaceful even. Growing in patches among the tombs is new life - blooming purple and white iris flowers.

Sounds of chain saws break the silence as men make their way through old brush and tree limbs.

People file in and out of the cemetery to stack discarded brush into a pile. Above the cemetery’s gate is a tattered sign that reads “Old Slave Cemetery.”

No one knows the origin of the name, but the death certificate of a person buried at the site lists the internment as St. Johns Cemetery, according to county records obtained by the Denton County Office of History and Culture.

Moss disguises the inscriptions engraved on the few headstones still upright. Others, cracked or toppled over, are barely legible anymore.

Jennie, wife of S.M. Walker. Born Nov. 16, 1867, died May 12, 1890, reads the inscription on one toppled-over tombstone that had a finger pointing to the sky. The stone is covered by overgrown grass, dirt and leaves, making it almost unnoticeable to anyone who walks by.

On another gray stone: Washington Whitlow, died Dec. 16, 1891, aged about 40 years old.

Ann Allen, wife of Sam Allen. Born in 1832, died in 1889.

Angeline, daughter of J.H. and Cornelia Williamson . Died 1882.

Lewis, son of . Mary Vaughner.

Other graves are marked with sandstones and inscriptions that have long ago eroded.

To reach some of the grave sites requires pushing back low-hanging tree branches, maneuvering around spiderwebs and gnarly vines. The sight resembles a forest more than a cemetery.

The final resting places belong to sons, daughters, spouses. Beyond what’s inscribed on their tombstones, very little is known about the people buried on the two acres of land. According to county surveys of the property, an estimated 490 unmarked graves and nearly 30 legible gravestones fill the neglected and abandoned cemetery.

Willie Hudspeth, president of the Denton County NAACP, recently solicited the help of about a dozen people for an effort to remove debris and brush from the cemetery.

For months, Hudspeth has asked the Denton County Commissioners Court for help refurbishing and maintaining the cemetery. With little response, he and a few others set out to do the work on their own.

Hudspeth has no connection to the people buried at the cemetery but said he feels the county should do something to maintain the final resting place of former residents.

“This is just a place where people who were slaves were dumped,” Hudspeth said. “It bothers me that they’re not even remembered or respected in death.”

An abandoned and neglected African-American cemetery is not unique to Denton County. All across the South and other regions of the U.S., people have discovered or rediscovered cemeteries and attempted to restore them and repair crumbling headstones.

“African-Americans in this country are often disconnected from their history, and slave cemeteries - abandoned cemeteries like this - sometimes serve as the lone conduit that people of color have to connect with their past,” said Lindell Singleton, a Fort Worth man who came to assist in the March 19 cleanup. “And that’s why this cleanup and the cleanup of other abandoned slave cemeteries around the South are absolutely essential.”

Singleton is working on a short film about Hudspeth and his efforts to get more black history and culture added to Denton’s downtown Square. The documentary’s story arc includes Hudspeth’s efforts to restore and repair the cemetery near Pilot Point, he said.

“The other piece of this that I think is important is that if there were Confederate soldiers that were buried here, there’s no way this would ever be allowed to occur. I don’t even think this is a racial issue. In many ways, this is really an American issue,” Singleton said. “It’s how do we want to treat our fellow citizens even though we may have disagreements, inequities in life. When you die, if you’re an American, you deserve for your earthly remains to be in a proper place. And that’s again the reason why this is essential that people take this seriously.”

Hudspeth said he started the cemetery inquiry last year. While protesting the Denton County Confederate Soldier Memorial on the Square, someone asked him about the cemetery, which he was unaware of. For months, he has gone before county commissioners in an effort to have public representation honoring the history and culture of black people in the county, just as the soldiers are honored, and for the county’s assistance in recognizing and restoring historically black cemeteries.

Hudspeth said he started looking into land records and stumbled upon the property, which was marked with a cross.

“It was God’s direction that helped us find this place,” he said.

Hudspeth said he started investigating the cemetery and found no one claims ownership of the cemetery property. Therefore, he said, the county should maintain the property.

A petition is underway calling for elected officials to restore the slave cemetery southwest of Pilot Point and to place a memorial on the Courthouse on the Square grounds recognizing black residents in Denton County. As of Friday, there were 423 signatures on the petition, Hudspeth said.

While he said there’s no particular number of signatures that would force commissioners to do anything, he’s hoping to obtain enough petition signatures that they will take notice and bring the issue up for discussion at a future meeting.

Hudspeth said it’s his understanding the people buried were part of a community similar to Quakertown, a black neighborhood uprooted in central Denton in the early 1920s to make way for a city park and relocated to Southeast Denton.

Hudspeth said other African-Americans settled southwest of Pilot Point in homes and started their own church and cemetery.

There are hardly any records to validate what Hudspeth has heard.

Who the people buried at the cemetery are and where they came from remain mysteries. It’s believed many of the people buried there were born slaves who were emancipated after the Civil War along with their children. It’s believed that others moved to the area to find work in the growing cotton industry, according to a 1997 Denton Record-Chronicle article.

“The concentration of graves may have been the result of African-Americans’ efforts to start a new town - a common trend among African-Americans in post-Civil War,” the Record-Chronicle story says.

Experts said they believe all who are buried there are black because white people and black people were interred separately in those days, and some people buried at the cemetery were known to be black residents.

Buried in the cemetery is Sam Allen, a slave born in the 1850s who purchased 50 acres in farmland and raised a family after obtaining his freedom, according to the book “Images of America: Pilot Point.” The book, released in 2009, was written by local historian Jay Melugin.

Henry Holloway, another man born into slavery in 1854 and buried in the cemetery in 1916, is also mentioned in the book. Attempts to reach Melugin for comment were unsuccessful.

Throughout the mid- and late 19th century, Pilot Point had become “an important commercial center” where agriculture was king.

What happened to the people or why they may have left the area is unknown.

There’s no doubt history tends to repeat itself.

Hudspeth isn’t the first to step in and attempt to repair the forgotten cemetery.

In 1997 and 1998, local residents organized their own cleanup, restoring the cemetery, repairing headstones, trimming back brush and putting up a new entrance sign, according to county records and newspaper stories.

People cleaning the cemetery at the time worried a link to African-American history would be lost if the site wasn’t maintained or encroached upon by area landowners, but that hasn’t happened.

A 1993 Denton County Historical Commission cemetery survey indicates cleaning was then underway at the cemetery with an expected completion date of June 1994.

In January, County Judge Mary Horn said the Denton County Historical Commission is seeking sponsors to recognize the burial grounds with a historic cemetery designation.

“Because ingress and egress to the cemetery must be granted by the property owner, Denton County is prohibited by law from demanding access but has encouraged the (commission’s) Marker Committee to continue to reach out to the landowner as it has done since the 1990s,” Horn wrote.

The cemetery sits on a tract of land totaling about 2.25 acres just south of FM455, according to county officials. It’s surrounded on all sides by private property. Ranches where horses are raised overlook the cemetery.

There’s no accessible road to the cemetery.

James White couldn’t believe the inscription on one grave. It was eerie.

White owns Timber Ridge Ranch west of the cemetery. He said he learned about the cemetery shortly after buying the brushy property, and then stumbled upon it at twilight while surveying the land.

White said he found a tombstone that read “J.D. White, Brother,” he said. The man appeared to be in his 30s when he died.

“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.”

White said he has returned to the cemetery nearly two dozen times since the night he first went to the cemetery and found the “white” grave. He often brings guests with him.

“People are mesmerized when they come through it,” he said. “We’ve even had some people from Denver that said let us know when the cleanup starts and then we’ll come down and help.”

A couple weeks ago, Hudspeth called and asked for his help with the cleanup. White obliged when Hudspeth said something that touched his heart.

“(Hudspeth) said we do this not because who we are, but we do it out of an act of compassion. And I agree with that totally,” White said. “This should be a peaceful tranquil place where you can come and have reflection. He just kind of reached my heart with that.”

Glenn Stinchcomb owns the land adjacent to three sides of the cemetery but said he does not own the cemetery and he doesn’t know of anyone who owns the property.

Many years ago when he first bought his property, Stinchcomb said he cleaned the cemetery. Grass and weeds grew high, and he said he did what he could to avoid disturbing any markers. For several years, it looked good, he said. He said he intends to be part of the current cleanup efforts at some point.

County staff members have searched deed records and have been unable to determine who owns the cemetery, said Peggy Riddle, executive director of the Denton County Office of History and Culture.

She said Place 1 Commissioner Andy Eads has given the office directions to move forward with plans for cleaning the cemetery. No date on when that might occur has been set. It all depends on when the county can get approval to do the work from landowners, she said.

“It’s one of the functions of the county to protect our cemeteries, and also it’s a part of the mission of our Denton County Historical Commission to help cemeteries with any issues,” Riddle said.

___

Information from: Denton Record-Chronicle, https://www.dentonrc.com

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