Congregation Builds Cross-Cultural Bridges by Restoring Cemetery

Source: Baptist Standard

This Black history month, the Oak Cliff Justice Coalition, a racial justice coalition that grew out of a series of community conversations at Cliff Temple Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas partnered with the Tenth Street Residential Association to clear away brush and debris on overgrown graves in the neglected predominantly African American section of Oak Cliff Cemetery.

Prompted by the national racial reckoning in the United States following the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others in 2020, Trevor Jamieson, Cliff Temple’s teaching pastor and minister to young adults, began a series of Zoom discussions designed to teach younger generations about the legacy of slavery, emancipation, and Jim Crow in the community.

Located in the Tenth Street neighborhood of Dallas, the community’s origins date back to the early days of emancipation when newly freed persons founded Freedman’s Town. Later absorbed into the growing Dallas metropolitan area, the segregation enclave was home to numerous black doctors, lawyers and teachers.

During the 1960s and 70s as part of federal Urban Renewal programs, the community became bisected when city officials expanded Interstate 35 resulting in the demolition of dozens of houses in the historic area. Displaced and forced into urban slums, the community began to lose aspects of its “feel.”

In 2019, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the neighborhood as one of the nation’s most endangered places in recognition of its history.

Working collaboratively with the Tenth Street Historic District and the Tenth Street Residential Association, Johnson and the members of Cliff Temple became involved in efforts to preserve the community’s history. Among the neighborhood’s notable historical features is it hosts what is believed to be the oldest public cemetery in Dallas County: Oak Cliff Cemetery.

During a presentation to the Oak Cliff Justice Coalition, Johnson noted how the white section of the cemetery had been historically maintained while brush and weeds had overgrown many headstones in the predominantly African American section of the cemetery.

In response to the presentation, Kenny Cheshier, Executive Pastor at Cliff Temple, recommended the coalition work to restore the cemetery. “I threw out the crazy idea of cemetery work,” said Cheshier. “It took on a life of its own.”

Leaping at the opportunity, Johnson and the coalition got to work.

“We put it out on social media,” Jamieson said. He noted an ethnically and politically diverse group of volunteers from throughout the community joined members of Cliff Temple in working each Saturday for several months at the cemetery, eager to help restore a “memorial to Black resiliency.”

As the work began, volunteers noted that approximately 90% percent of the headstones in the Black section of the cemetery were covered with debris and illegible. During the cleaning process, the group discovered one of the covered graves belong to noted Dallas clergyman, A.W. Moss, a former pastor of Griggs Chapel Missionary Baptist Church.

Commenting on the experience, Johnson said, “It’s been an incredible journey and there’s more to come.”

In the meantime, Cliff Temple looks forward to continuing to work with Johnson on community projects in the Tenth Street neighborhood, Cheshier added, Cliff Temple is not done working with the community and hopes to build abiding relationships for future projects that unite all Dallas residents.

Source: Baptist Standard