St. John's

A photo from 2016 shows the St. John’s Cemetery being prepared for renovations, which are continuing.

Denton County is moving ever closer toward recognizing its history of racial violence in one rural area of the county.

That showed on Tuesday, when, during Commissioners Court, four researchers from the University of North Texas presented what one official called the fullest accounting of what life and death was like for the many freedmen who lived in the St. John’s community near Pilot Point. The research is being used as county officials apply for official Texas Historical Commission markers.

The researchers — Emily Bowles, Micah Crittenden, Jessica Floyd and Hannah Stewart, all history students at UNT — scavenged thousands of records and newspaper clippings to trace the origins of the community, established after emancipation, to Chambers County, Alabama. Former slaves came here to live, and until recently not much was known about how they lived and died, and why so many people left the community during the first quarter-century of the 1900s. Much of what happened was suppressed in records, and many of the records that did tell the story were damaged over the years in fires, the researchers said.

But what they did come across, the students put to good use in their pursuit of a long-hidden truth.

“We found a newspaper article that changed the entire focus of our semester,” Stewart said. “This article, published by the Denton Record-Chronicle on Dec. 14, 1922, detailed the lynching that occurred in the area around St. John’s.”

Like so many newspaper articles from the time period, the only words used to identify the victims of the racist violence were “a negro was killed,” Crittenden said. They found 4,500 of those articles from this and other newspapers. They uncovered records of 113 arrests and acts of violence in the Pilot Point area from 1909 to 1925.

“We found evidence of mob violence, lynchings and floggings in Pilot Point,” Stewart said. “We also found records of uncertain causes of death, as well as newspaper articles that reported strange occurrences and deaths in this area.”

Bowles said their fullest findings will be published later this year. The truth they said they uncovered will come out, and it will be injected into an already tense discussion.

The St. John’s Cemetery has become another touchpoint in local black activists’ efforts to get an honest accounting of Denton County’s history. The cemetery, with its unmarked graves and deteriorating headstones, has been a site of debate during Commissioners Court.

In 2016, commissioners allocated $20,000 toward revamping the cemetery. But Willie Hudspeth, the Denton County NAACP president, has said the county has not done enough still. Danny Brumley, director of the county’s facilities department, said the county spent $18,000 that year mowing and trimming weeds, and since has spent $33,000 more by hiring contract workers for the site’s upkeep.

Crittenden, one of the researchers, said about a month ago she and her colleagues visited the cemetery to examine headstones for clues in their search. She told commissioners Tuesday that some of the areas were bogged down by mulch and piles of foliage. They had to use their hands to recover certain artifacts.

Hudspeth and others, including the researchers, have said archaeologists should be hired to professionally find all of the history there is to be retrieved in the cemetery. Fencing needs to be raised around it, they say. None of that has been done yet.

Peggy Riddle, the director of the Denton County Office of History and Culture, said officials are applying for a cemetery marker for St. John’s. She said Denton County will thereafter create its own historical marker. And after that, Riddle said, officials will apply for a historical marker for the St. John’s community itself.

If Denton County officials are for some reason unable to obtain a marker for the cemetery or for the St. John’s community, local historians have another option through the Equal Justice Institute and its nationwide marker project.

This year, the Equal Justice Institute opened the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. The memorial remembers more than 4,000 victims of lynchings, including two in December 1922 in Denton County.

The institute’s markers address the history and legacy of lynching and the struggle for racial equality. Most victims of lynching have never been publicly acknowledged.

Staff writer Peggy Heinkel- Wolfe contributed to this report.

DALTON LAFERNEY can be reached at 940-566-6882 and via Twitter at @dalton laferney.

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