PILOT POINT — Truths told only as whispers were spoken aloud Saturday morning as people gathered to remember the victims of racial terrorism and the scars Denton County holds from that legacy.
Volunteers with the Denton County Community Remembrance Project organized a soil collection ceremony that opened the doors to the truth-telling, which tumbled out in personal recollections, prayers, poetry and song.
The Rev. John White, a longtime resident of Pilot Point, helped scoop the first soil collected at the bottoms of the Trinity River’s Elm Fork Saturday morning before the full public gathering began.
The location, near the old iron bridge on the Greenbelt Corridor, represented people hung from Denton County bridges and elsewhere. More than a dozen lynchings have been documented in Denton County from 1860 to 1922. Historians believe other lynchings and many more incidents of racial terror and violence went undocumented for a much longer period.
Volunteers formed a circle and held hands as White remembered his grandmother’s story about dark times in the early 1920s.
“They were going back to Alabama because of the hangings,” White said.
Historians traced some of Denton County’s earliest black settlers to that state. Many freed slaves left Chambers County, Alabama, after the Civil War. They got off the railroad at the end of the line in Denton County. For a time, Pilot Point was home to the largest cotton gin in the nation. Near Pilot Point, the new settlers founded the St. John’s community, which has since been lost.
Saturday’s ceremony commemorated two men lynched on Dec. 14, 1922. What little is known about the incident was reported in newspapers. The pair were arrested and left unguarded overnight in a Pilot Point jail.
A note was left in the jail telling “negroes” to “leave town.” The Ku Klux Klan initiated 300 new members from Denton County a few months before the lynching. At the Klan’s peak in Texas, historians believe one of every three Texas men was a member.
Volunteer and longtime Denton County resident Beth Leggieri said being involved in the project has helped her family genealogy research make more sense. She came across a brief memoir written by an uncle who was a fighter pilot in World War II. He was taken to a Klan rally as a child. The fire and violence changed his life, she said.
“He moved to California to raise his family there,” she said.
Cecelia Harris, another longtime resident of Pilot Point, placed flowers and inspirational stones on the ground where soil was collected outside the old jail and calaboose.
With a stone inscribed with the word “believe,” Harris said she thought that in order to go through what they went through, the two men had to believe. And with a stone that read “dream,” she alluded to the work and sacrifice of Martin Luther King Jr.
“We’ve had many nightmares, but we still dream,” Harris said.
In addition to placing soil from the site where the men were likely taken, Pilot Point city officials placed bits of the decaying walls of the calaboose — currently wedged between a city water tank and pump house — into the collection jars.
The siblings of Lermont Stowers-Jones, a Denton teen who recently died at the foot of the Old Alton Bridge, carried the three jars nearly filled with sacred ground to their penultimate destination: a commemoration at the Pilot Point First United Methodist Church.
There, University of North Texas voice professor Jennifer Lane led more than 100-plus attendees in singing “Amazing Grace.” Event co-organizer Shaun Treat illuminated the bits of Texas history that never made it into the textbook before turning the bulk of the program over to three speakers and a jazz quartet to highlight the themes of justice, peace and healing.
The Rev. John Ross, pastor of First Baptist Church of Pilot Point, tapped the Book of Genesis to remind attendees how God first illustrated justice: by creating the land and the sea and that neither should overtake the other.
Then he reminded everyone how difficult justice can be for humans.
“Every man believes in justice until he has to pay the price,” Ross said. “Only justice is the remedy for injustice.”
Alfredo Sanchez, speaking on behalf of the League of United Latin American Citizens, invited the crowd to create peace by observing a moment of silence for those lives lost. Denton City Council member Gerard Hudspeth and Pilot Point City Council member Pearlie Mae Simpson both shared personal stories to reflect how individuals and communities can move toward healing.
Hudspeth recalled the time that he and his brother were nearly home from a family reunion in South Texas when they were pulled over. Because they would not consent to a search of their car, the two men were taken to jail. Hudspeth said the experience, together with the counsel of his father who watched the scene unfold in the car behind him, taught him to be patient with ignorance.
“I can’t chase it myself,” Hudspeth said. “But I can bring those experiences to the table.”
Simpson grew up in a segregated Denton County and struggled to finish her college studies as one of the first black students to attend Texas Woman’s University. When she first ran for City Council, officials tried to tell her that she had lost, but she knew she had won.
“I loved Pilot Point,” she said. “We asked for a recount. I sat on City Council for 16 years, probably because nobody would run against me for a while.”
“This is my story,” she added. “I want younger people to know, just do it right. You’ve got to do it the right way.”
The final destination for one jar of sacred soil remains in Pilot Point, while another will stay with the Denton County Office of History and Culture. County Judge Andy Eads said the county’s jar would be displayed at the Courthouse-on-the-Square Museum and other county buildings to educate the public.
“We must not forget the horrendous events of the past,” Eads said.
The third jar will travel back to Alabama for display in the Legacy Museum. The Denton County Remembrance Project is part of a nationwide movement guided by the Equal Justice Initiative, which created the museum and the companion National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery.
Gabrielle Daniels, of EJI, told the crowd she has had the privilege of attending similar ceremonies around the country and noted that Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit” has been incorporated many times.
In Denton County’s case, jazz saxophone legend Brad Leali and vocalist Katina Stone Butler were joined by UNT doctoral students Eric Hitt on double bass and Greg Satterthwaite.
“There are very few songs that talk about what happened,” Daniels said. “It’s an important contribution at a time when a lot of people weren’t listening.”
Event co-organizer Linnie McAdams charged everyone attending to continue the conversation, whether at a church, a book club or with the project.
“Let us commit to learning how to live together,” McAdams said. “I am ready. How about you?”