North Texas Daily

Denton activist works to restore historic Black cemetery

Denton activist works to restore historic Black cemetery

Denton activist works to restore historic Black cemetery
September 30
15:00 2021

Unlocking the hinge of the creaky metal gate, 75-year-old Denton County NAACP President and local activist Willie Hudspeth slowly makes his way into St. John’s Cemetery. Fallen leaves crunch under his feet as he walks onto the grounds, located in Pilot Point, Texas.

Despite there being an estimated 400 bodies within the burial site, only 20 are clearly marked by headstones, the dates engraved on them dating back to nearly 200 years ago. Some burial plots are marked by pieces of sandstone, while many others have been identified through sunken patches of ground. Small purple flags mark what is believed to be a child grave.

“I go there and just think about what they went through and all that I have to be thankful for,” Hudspeth said. “It’s just as quiet and peaceful as it can be.”

The cemetery is believed to contain the graves of hundreds of Black Americans from an 1800s freedmen’s community, once known as St. John’s. Hudspeth has continuously visited the grounds since he first heard about the site. While attending one of his earlier demonstrations calling for the removal of the Confederate monument at the Denton Square, a local resident informed Hudspeth about the forgotten historic cemetery.

Not long after, Hudspeth was able to find his way to St. John’s with the help of a local groundskeeper. Upon first walking onto the site, Hudspeth was saddened by the unkempt state of the burial grounds. Tallgrass and weeds covered the area, making it difficult to see the plots.

Several of the headstones had been knocked over or stolen by local teens.

“I was just heartbroken seeing it,” Hudspeth said. “I was so angry at the way they treated my people. There are 50 kids’ graves out there and they’re just forgotten.”

Hudspeth soon began advocating for the Denton County Commissioners Court to restore and maintain the area. In 2016, Hudspeth’s cause started to gain more followers. He soon gathered groups of weekly volunteers to clear much of the overgrowth in the cemetery.

Denton County Council member Deb Armintor had worked with Hudspeth throughout his previous movement to remove the Confederate monument and was one of the first people to volunteer to clean the grounds. Armintor said that getting to see St. John’s cemetery for the first time was a deeply moving experience.

“I felt the presence of those who had lived there, raised their families there, went to church there, persevered there,” Armintor said. “It was a very spiritual experience.”

In June 2016, the DCCC voted to restore and maintain the state of the cemetery by mowing the grass, upkeeping trees and clearing trash. However, Hudspeth said that soon after the maintenance began, the county stopped putting much effort into regular maintenance.

Hudspeth believes that the cemetery’s unkept state will continue without public awareness.

“It’s because nobody knows about [the site],” Hudspeth said. “If you don’t get the public involved, if there’s no information out there for them to grasp.”

Hudspeth also believes the county has access to funds that could be used to purchase equipment that could locate human remains within the cemetery grounds. He feels his most important goal is to find each grave to accurately mark each burial site with headstones. By doing so, Hudspeth says the community could properly show their respect for the forgotten people of St. John’s.

“We need to find where those bodies are,” Hudspeth said. “And when we do, we are going to go out there and we are going to honor those people. We are going to say, ‘we will remember you and we will never forget you.’”

Another issue Hudspeth hopes to address is the lack of public access to the cemetery. St. John’s is currently landlocked by privately owned land, meaning the only way to reach it is by driving down a private road closed off by gates.

Philosophy doctoral student Jessica Luther Rummel helped Hudspeth find multiple historical documents and records explaining how errors in land surveys over time made it possible for St. John’s Cemetery to become inaccessible to the public. Rummel believes that making the cemetery accessible will help increase the Denton County community’s overall knowledge of the forgotten St. John’s community. By doing so, she feels more steps can be made toward the Denton County Historical Commission’s public acknowledgment and awareness of local Black history.

“There should be a historical marker and a whole page dedicated to it on the Denton County Historical Commission’s website,” Rummel said. “The real crime here is that these people have been buried twice.”

As Hudspeth continues working to raise awareness and restore the cemetery, what he really wants is for people to get involved. Hudspeth said that by getting the public involved, the cemetery can finally receive the acknowledgment and respect it deserves.

“Those people were not ever recognized as humans, even though they were free,” Hudspeth said. “We need to get them their recognition now.”

Featured Image: Local activist Willie Hudspeth works at St. John’s Cemetery in Pilot Point, TX on Sept. 26, 2021. Photo by Samantha Thornfelt

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Samantha Thornfelt

Samantha Thornfelt

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