Remembering Part of Dallas’ Tragic History with a Monument Carved from Texas Red Granite
When the Civil War ended in 1865, many of the newly freed slaves in Texas chose Dallas, one of the last prosperous southern cities left intact at that time, as a place to set down roots. Those freedmen gravitated toward the familiar, and they set up a small community around a site that had once been used as a burial ground for slaves. This area eventually came to be known as Freedmen’s Town. Ultimately, it grew into the largest segregated African American enclave in Dallas – and one of the largest in the country – until the 1970’s.
Of course, the former slaves still encountered significant hardship in Dallas, and the history surrounding Freedman’s Cemetery reflects that quite well. Officially established in 1869, the cemetery expanded from one acre to four over the following decade, but was virtually destroyed in the 1930’s when construction for the Central Expressway began. Tragically, much of the burial grounds were paved over, and many of the granite headstones were crushed into gravel for road fill. Disturbing the resting places of over 2,000 freedmen and their descendants seemed barely an afterthought – a sentiment compounded by the Expressway’s further expansion in the 40’s, which saw almost all of the remaining graves leveled.
Raising a Memorial: From Dreams to Reality
A group of community activists lobbied to turn the site into a memorial park in 1965, but it was made into a lackluster, rarely-used playground instead. Sadly, the issue seemed to have been put to rest until another highway expansion was proposed in the 1980’s. It seems by that time, the cultural significance of the site had been almost entirely forgotten until an archaeologist overseeing the project began looking into the area’s history. She uncovered what was likely to be Freedman’s Cemetery’s last existing gravestone, and the discovery was enough to prompt officials to authorize that all of the graves be excavated and reinterred.
In 1989, the dream a few had harbored back in the 60’s finally began to take shape, and a project that would eventually become the Freedman’s Memorial was put into motion. The Freedman’s Foundation raised $2 million for a memorial site within the new cemetery, and Texas’ Department of Transportation, the city of Dallas, and organizations within the local African American community all got involved in the planning efforts. Renowned artist David Newton was selected to create a series of heartbreakingly lifelike bronze sculptures for the monument, as well as design the rest of it, which is an undeniable work of art in and of itself.
A Masterpiece of Granite & Bronze
Freedman’s Memorial is located at 2525 N Central Expy, Dallas, TX 75204, it is surrounded by a wrought iron fence and picturesque spread of pecan trees, with an impressive, arched gate that serves as both an entryway and the park’s centerpiece. Leading to a small contemplation area, this arch and the adjoining walls, walkways, planters, and benches are all carved from a type of granite known as Texas Red, which is abundant within the state, although the stone used here actually boasts more of a pinkish hue than a red one. Once quarried, the granite slabs were transported and cut on-site, as the finished pieces would have been far too large to risk moving for fear of damaging them.
The park is an enduring, granite masterpiece, designed to emphasize the hope that Freedman’s Cemetery will never again become a mere footnote in history. Still, the memorial’s bronze elements are just as significant. One such example are the metal plaques mounted along the rear of the granite wall, which display the poems of ten schoolchildren who won a local poetry contest. Dallas teacher and writer Nia Akimbo’s poem ‘Here’ can also be seen. However, as lovely as these displays are, its Newton’s sculptures that are absolutely unforgettable. The images he brought to life are as lovingly detailed as they are devastatingly emotional to look at, and anything less simply wouldn’t have done the memorial justice.
There are seventeen bronze statues positioned throughout the memorial in total – five of them large and lifelike, with the remaining twelve inset at the top of either side of the arch. On the east side of the arch’s entry are two statues on pedestals; a female “Griot”, or storyteller, representing the history to be kept alive, and a male “Warrior”, which is representative of protecting the cemetery from those who would desecrate it again. Meanwhile, the western side of the entryway features two large, bronze bas reliefs which depict slaves in chains, and are meant to illustrate the experiences of African Americans in pre-Civil War America.
Walking through the arch takes you straight into a contemplation area, where Newton’s final statue sits on a dais. Like the others, this one, titled “Dream of Freedom”, is also incredibly moving. Just as the storied past of Freedman’s Cemetery reflects a long road to true progress for the emancipated, this last sculpture, displaying two former slaves – the man with whip marks on his back, and the woman clutching onto him for support – suggests that their future would be just as bitter as freedom was sweet. It’s a testament to the memorial that, for all its beauty, none of the pain that made it necessary in the first place has been forgotten.
Stonework at Freedman’s Memorial
The park is mostly constructed from Texas Red granite, also called Sunset Red, which is a type of granite that ranges in color between pink and deep red. In this case, the stone used for Freedman’s Memorial clearly leans toward the former, with the hue coming from its potassium feldspar content. Texas boasts two major quarries that produce Texas Red, and each has quite a large amount. Granite Mountain, which is a solid dome of granite that rises 860 feet above the ground is one, and Enchanted Rock, a 450-foot-tall mountain that covers 640 acres is another. A highly durable material, granite is the perfect surface to install in high-traffic areas of the home, for constructing building exteriors that will outlast most any weather, and for use in sculpting.