Up until about fifty years ago, all of the fashionable Dallasites who left for the great beyond said their final good-byes inside Oakland
Cemetery. Founded in 1895, this burial ground for the wealthy and well-connected sits at the southern edge of Dallas, close to the Trinity
River, a few blocks south of Forest Avenue. When the cemetery was still well-used, its location was amongst the neighborhood of Fair Park
and the prestigious Southpark development.
The cemetery doesn't look like it used to, though. Overgrown and weedy, the fantastic monuments dedicated to many of Dallas' movers and
shakers sit in a rather dilapidated state amidst an area of town which the city has seemed to have forgotten. Very few people visit the
graveyard, anymore. Some of the areas, notably the Potter's field, experience floods and are debris-strewn. Dead trees and high weeds
obscure the views within the park. As the cemetery seems to only have one full-time caretaker, the task of maintaining this gargantuan
installation is formidable, and the resulting neglect is understandable. However, the reason that the cemetery has become such a low
priority for the city of Dallas is not so forgivable, as it's racism, not budgets, that has relegated what should be a city show piece to
Today, Forest Avenue is called Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, and Oakland Avenue has been renamed Malcolm X. Boulevard. These
name changes reflect a metamorphism that has been replicated in cities throughout the American South. By the 1970s, many white areas
rapidly changed into predominantly African American neighborhoods. Two major civil rights decisions became the impetus for this ethnic
turn-over: redlining by banks, a practice that barred African Americans and poor people from securing mortgages, was greatly curtailed by
the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and segregation by race was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court as well as in the Civil Rights Act
In Dallas, two decisions further contributed to the ethnic divide. The state of Texas built Interstate 30 and widened US 75 (Central
Expressway) on the northern and eastern edges of the neighborhood. As property in southern Dallas became cheaper and available to
blacks, entrenched white Dallasites migrated north of the freeways. At the same time, black Dallasites witnessed their old neighborhoods
of State Thomas and Deep Ellum, which were now in the "desired" locations north of the interstate, become less affordable. Ultimately,
ethnic geography in Dallas became entrenched: whites congregated mainly in northern Dallas, and southern Dallas became a
predominantly black neighborhood.
Oddly, gains in civil rights actually created a bigger racial divide. Oakland Cemetery, in South Dallas, sat adjacent to Queen City, a black
middle class neighborhood founded in the early 1900s. Many of this neighborhood's inhabitants were most likely buried in the rear part of
Oakland Cemetery - its "negro section." The majority-black neighborhood of State-Thomas in Northeast Dallas was bracketed by middle
class white neighborhoods. After the 1970s, neighborhood diversity in Dallas seemed to be gone.
What does this have to do with Oakland Cemetery? While no one has ever made the official declaration that it is white racism against blacks
that has made their visits to, and upkeep of, their ancestor's burial grounds scarce over the years, the neglect of this prime spot speaks
for itself. Because the cemetery lies beyond this unmarked but well-known racial divide - again, one that is present in most southern cities
- the graveyard has been pretty much forgotten. This amnesia includes Oakland's African American portion - some of the graves were
demolished to make way for a city part (Opportunity Park).
Oakland Cemetery isn't where this story ends, however. The black families who were edged out of their historical State-Thomas
neighborhood witnessed the outright destruction to their own cemetery. The Freedman's Cemetery, which was established in 1869 at the
corner of Lemmon and Central Avenues, sat adjacent to the large Greenwood Cemetery. Interestingly, the conglomeration of cemeteries
surrounding Greenwood reveal religious segregation between Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant burials. Central Avenue, upon which the
tracks of the Houston & Texas Central Railroad (Texas & New Orleans Railway, then Southern Pacific) ran, became the center of black
Dallas. When the railroad tracks were removed in order to widen Central Avenue into a four lane freeway, contractors bulldozed the black
cemetery. All of the markers were demolished. An outcry by African American citizens resulted in the establishment of Freedman's
Memorial Park, which became a state archaeological site in 1989 when North Central Expressway (the former Central Avenue) was widened
into eight lanes.
I visited both cemeteries, and the peculiarity in their history and geography is palpable. Oakland is a place designated only for whites
(including a number of Mexican graves - in North Texas, there wasn't much of a distinction between Anglo and Hispanic people) that lies
adjacent to a Confederate cemetery, but is situated in the middle of a predominantly black neighborhood. The people who surround the
cemetery today have no ties to it. The Freedman's Cemetery of State-Thomas now sits not along railroad tracks, but right in the middle of
the tony Uptown district, amidst high-priced real estate and urban hipness. Again, most of the young urban professionals who live in the
area have no ties to the cemetery. The Dallasites that most likely still maintain ties to their immediate neighborhood are those who live in
Queen City near Oakland, but their dead's memorials have been obliterated.
It may simply be progress that cemeteries in Dallas do not reflect their neighborhoods any longer... which is why most Dallasites are buried
now in memorial parks that resemble golf courses rather than graveyards. But as the history of these two cemeteries attest, progress isn't
necessarily a citizen's choice; rather, it comes from decisions made regardless of the citizen's desires.
|Oakland Cemetery as depicted in the Sanborn Fire Inusurance Map of 1921. (Dolph Briscoe Library, UT)
|The Freedman's Cemetery was simply known as the Negro
Cemetery on Sanborn Fire Insurance maps.
|A deceased couple on a tombstone at Oakland Cemetery. Placing ceramic photographs on tombstones used to be a rare burial practice, but it
has become increasingly common today. (And yes, I thought their eyes were following me!)
|Most black families in Dallas lived along the tracks of the Houston, Texas & Central Railroad - today's North Central Expressway. This was known
as the State-Thomas neighborhood.
|On the flipside to the individual monuments is the "Negro Cemetery" near the State-Thomas neighborhood, which was bulldozed to make way
for a highway expansion. No graves remain visible at the Freedman's Cemetery. A beautiful monument graces the access gate to the old burial
ground today. The Freedman's Cemetery is abutted by a Jewish, Catholic, Potter's Field, and the tony Greenwood Cemetery.
|The cemeteries, while segregated, attest to the diversity of the city of Dallas.
Their neglect attest to the racial divide of southern cities.
The Dallas Historical Society runs tours of Oakland Cemetery.
Read a fantastic article about Oakland Cemetery's neglect in the Dallas Observer.
The African American Museum of Dallas hosts a permanent exhibit on the archeology of the Freedmen's
|The Potters Field at Oakland Cemetery has experienced floods and vandalism. This dislocated and broken tombstone is especially egregious -
Mr. Norton was part of the 338th Infantry in WWII - noted as the "Custer Divison" of the 85th Infantry, which was among the first American
troops to invade Europe through Italy.
|OF COURSE I photographed the interior of a tomb at Oakland Cemetery.
|Oakland Cemetery today. The segregated cemetery for blacks is now inside "Opportunity Park." Potter's field is in the back of the cemetery, along
|The Freedman's Cemetery was once simply the "Negro Cemetery" that was segregated from the Jewish, Catholic, and Trinity (now Greenwood)
cemeteries. No graves remain visible on ground level.
|Oakland Cemetery, founded in 1895, sports several handsome, imported monuments that commemorate the movers and shakers of Dallas -
families like the Armstrongs, Dalys, Belos, Caruths, and Ervays are interred here. However, many of the tombs are in bad condition. Oakland
Cemetery is ringed by a Confederate Cemetery, a potter's field, and also a small black cemetery. Only a few worn tombstones remain of the
black cemetery, which has been converted into a public park.