This story has been updated to reflect that the historic marker is coming from the Equal Justice Initiative.
Local historians are making progress in telling Denton County’s troubled history with lynching, beginning with a newly approved historic marker for St. John’s Cemetery.
The marker is the first major step for Denton County to become part of a national memorial that recognizes victims of racial violence, although the final placement of the marker and the monument have not been set, according to Shaun Treat, a former University of North Texas professor and a community activist.
During the third anniversary of Nerd Nite Denton at the Bearded Monk, Treat unveiled the work he and other history researchers have done in the past year related to lynchings in Denton County.
UNT history students unearthed a lot of information about the free black community that settled near Pilot Point, and that work is ongoing, including work identifying Ku Klux Klan activity.
A former UNT history student, Chelsea Stallings, put the marker application to the Equal Justice Initiative together, Treat said, outlining one known lynching near St. John’s, a freedmen’s community near Pilot Point, in 1922. Stallings’ thesis for her master’s degree in history covered the forced exodus of Quakertown, Denton’s free black community, in the early 1920s.
“We’ve been working behind the scenes to get this monument to Denton,” Treat said. “We [historians] know how to write, but the important questions [about the memorial], the community needs to answer.”
The monument is related to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which EJI opened in Montgomery, Alabama, in April 2018. The memorial remembers more than 4,000 people who were murdered between 1877 and 1950 with hundreds of weathered steel beams inscribed like tombstones. Not all the victims’ names are known, including the two Denton County victims remembered there. The two men are listed only with their date of death: Dec. 14, 1922.
When the Equal Justice Initiative opened the memorial, officials announced they had a second set of beams ready to be claimed by the communities who wanted to remember their dead.
Treat says the checklist to bring home Denton County’s beam is long and includes important items for the placement and care-taking of the local memorial.
He has been gentle in sharing the news, Treat says, since he doesn’t want to be viewed as a leader asking people for support. Instead, he’s been offering the support of willing historians to people who want to develop the memorial.
“So far it’s been me going to church,” Treat said of his attendance at some of Denton’s African American churches. “And afterwards I ask if someone wants to talk about a lynching,” which, he adds, often gets him a sideways glance.
He knows historians might have to make a little progress before the community gets involved.
“I’m willing to inhabit the double bind,” Treat said. “The mission is to bring the beam back.”
He plans to organize a community meeting on Juneteenth with people who’ve expressed an interest in the mission so far, although others will be welcome, he said.
“Do we have the courage to bring it home?” he said.