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Historic Black cemetery, lost in sea of Far North Dallas apartments, needs City Hall help

Advocates seek to protect this hallowed ground in perpetuity through Landmark Commission designation.

The keepers of the White Rock Cemetery Garden of Memories, a historic graveyard buried within the mountains of apartments that surround it, don’t rest easy.

A few of the markers belong to white settlers, but most are those of formerly enslaved pioneers and farmers, including many of Dallas County’s prominent early Black families.

The cemetery’s contemporary protectors know their elders’ trauma over almost losing this hallowed ground several decades ago to developers who claimed the cemetery was abandoned — even as community members continued to be interred there.

They can recite the decade-long timeline of the 1970s legal battle that temporarily succeeded in locking out family members who wanted only to care for their loved ones’ graves.

They still fear that in a city where market forces perennially mow over history, the future is hardly secure for this 170-year-old cemetery, hidden away but only a minute or two from the clamor of Preston Road north of I-635.

That’s why these guardians have secured historic cemetery designation and a state historical marker to keep memories alive of this eternal resting place for more than 420 of Dallas’ sons and daughters.

And why those who seek to preserve the sanctity of this site want the city’s Landmark Commission to approve a historic designation for this 3-acre cemetery, among the last remnants of what began as the Upper White Rock freedmen’s town.

Only with a landmark designation will the descendants of the names on these grave markers have confidence that the property, unknown to almost all of us, will be protected in perpetuity.

Antonia Suber brushes aside freshly mowed grass from the double headstone of Black landowner...
Antonia Suber brushes aside freshly mowed grass from the double headstone of Black landowner and pioneer Anderson Bonner and his wife, Eliza.(Shafkat Anowar / Staff Photographer)

The route to access White Rock Cemetery is one of multiple twists, turns and locked gates as the road rises along an escarpment that leads to an unexpected pastoral hilltop dotted with bois d’arc, elm and hickory.

As I walked the property with Antonia Suber, head of the cemetery’s board of trustees, and researcher Sheniqua Cummings, it felt like a half-century or more had fallen away.

Here imposing pink granite tombstones and obelisks from the first half of the 1900s sit alongside much older markers whose lavish inscriptions have mostly weathered away.

Many of the newer headstones noted service in one of the world wars; brightly colored artificial flowers suggested frequent visitors to a few family plots.

PVC piping fashioned into crosses designated burial plots of uncertain origins. Broken headstones were pieced back together as best possible.

With Remembering Black Dallas Inc. founder George Keaton long leading the way, Suber and Cummings joined the cemetery preservation fight almost a decade ago.

“Who’s to say that at some point someone won’t come in here and think, ‘Hey, nobody cares about this. Let’s just build on it,’” Cummings said. “I’m always afraid of that.”

Antonia Suber and Sheniqua Cummings, two of the many volunteer advocates who have worked to...
Antonia Suber and Sheniqua Cummings, two of the many volunteer advocates who have worked to save the White Rock Cemetery Garden of Memories. (Shafkat Anowar / Staff Photographer)

She recalled the promise she made to the community’s ancestors buried here: “That I would do my very best to make sure their history was preserved and word gets out about this place.”

The cemetery is part of a freedmen’s town settled after the Civil War by former enslaved individuals from the nearby Coit, Caruth and Obier plantations as well as migrants from other states.

The abundance of cheap, rich farmland for cash crops like cotton, corn, wheat and oats allowed generations of Black families to make good livings in what was still “the country” north of Dallas.

But as farming played out and post-World War II development accelerated, many sold their land while others were pushed out.

Among those buried in White Rock Cemetery are large landowners like Anderson Bonner, George Coit and Henry Keller, all of whom have streets or parks that bear their names.

Also interred here are Willie Mae Sowell, who at one time owned the land on which the Galleria stands, and Naomi Turner, who started the city’s first Black Seventh-day Adventist Church.

“A lot of history is right here, with the cemetery at its center, yet nobody knows about it,” Suber said. “If we don’t preserve that, our youth will have no knowledge of it.”

Antonia Suber removed the faded flowers on the cemetery marker of his mother, Everlee Suber,...
Antonia Suber removed the faded flowers on the cemetery marker of his mother, Everlee Suber, during a walk-through of the 3-acre site Wednesday.(Shafkat Anowar / Staff Photographer)

That history is shared as family members gather at the cemetery’s annual Memorial Day commemoration and picnic. Many of those descendants, each of whom has the lock combination to enter, come to pray and lay flowers on the gravesites throughout the year.

“This land belongs to every one of those family members,” Suber said, who like Cummings and Keaton has ancestors buried here.

He hopes for a day when the property, north of Preston Oaks Road and west of Preston Road, might be open to the public.

The cemetery’s best preservation news in some time arrived on a recent Saturday morning when a maintenance crew — with County Commissioner John Wiley Price overseeing things — did a much-needed deep cleanup and thorough mowing.

The county’s effort — its first at White Rock Cemetery in about 10 years — resulted from a well-timed conversation at the Sept. 10 community celebration of a historical marker and public art to honor Anderson Bonner, Suber’s great-great-grandfather.

When Price learned from Suber that the county had dropped the ball on White Rock Cemetery’s maintenance, “he really stepped up to the plate,” Suber told me.

Price wanted to see for himself the condition of the cemetery, which was thick with overgrowth after recent rains. The county crew tackled areas that the regular volunteers hadn’t been able to reach.

Going forward, Price has assured Suber, cemetery trustees can count on the county for regular maintenance.

The White Rock Cemetery Garden of Memories, now surrounded by massive apartment complexes,...
The White Rock Cemetery Garden of Memories, now surrounded by massive apartment complexes, is believed to include more than 420 gravesites.(Shafkat Anowar / Staff Photographer)

Another significant advocate for the White Rock Cemetery is City Council member Jaynie Schultz, who is helping navigate the historic overlay process.

Until she participated in one of Keaton’s Remembering Black Dallas tours almost a decade ago, Schultz had no idea the neighborhood she grew up in was formerly a freedmen’s town or home to the White Rock Cemetery.

“The fact that it’s in my district is a gift,” she told me. “I need to represent the area’s history as much as its present and its future.”

With the county resuming responsibility for maintenance, Suber can focus on upgrading the site’s pavilion, repairing and improving the wrought-iron gates and securing an entrance archway for the cemetery.

Cummings, a founding member of Remembering Black Dallas and chair of its historic marker committee, said it’s been an honor to do the research for the historic cemetery recognition and state marker.

Her meticulously sourced narrative begins with the graveyard’s earliest days, when a white settler and farmer created the 1-acre Scott Cemetery, which would eventually become part of the White Rock Cemetery.

The oldest known grave in the Scott portion, dated 1852, belongs to Margaret McKamy, the infant daughter of William C. and Rachel McKamy.

In the 1870s, Black families began burying their loved ones on adjacent land that George Coit purchased from the Scott holdings. They later organized the White Rock Chapel Church, the first Black congregation established in Far North Dallas.

The cemetery, known at various times as White Rock Colored Union Cemetery and White Rock Union Cemetery, was rededicated on April 17, 1973, as the White Rock Cemetery Garden of Memories.

Cummings still remembers the anger she felt when trying to visit for the first time. Confused by the inaccurate GPS directions, she drove in circles and into dead ends until finally concluding that the huge apartment complexes had already expanded on top of the cemetery.

Since then, she always parks a distance away and walks the route to the gate and then among the headstones where she has done so much research. Somewhere in White Rock Cemetery, her family’s patriarch, John Henry Peace, is buried without a marker.

“It helps me get my mind right,” Cummings said. “That’s important when I enter. I have family here and I really, truly respect the lives that are here.”

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