[Diocese of Dallas] On a recent cold, blustery Saturday morning a group of volunteers from St. Mark’s in Irving gathered with tools and shovels at one of the Texas’ oldest slave burial sites, Shelton’s Bear Creek Cemetery, to make repairs and tend the grounds.
“It’s great to honor the slaves and their descendants who are buried here,” said Julie Esstman, a member of St. Mark’s. “We’ve met wonderful people who care about this cemetery and it’s been a great opportunity to help.” Her husband, Mike Esstman agreed, “It’s a piece of history – history of our country that we are not proud of. This shows respect for the people who came before us,” he said.
The historical marker at the site says the land between Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and Story Road was owned by Chilton S. Smith, and developed as a cotton and cattle plantation by hundreds of slaves. The cemetery grounds are nestled off Highway 161, adjacent to an apartment complex. Over the years, the cemetery has overgrown with weeds and some of the markers are missing or are no longer visible. An aging fence needs repair and some of the trees could use significant trimming.
The Rev. Bob Corley, St. Mark’s rector, said when he heard the cemetery caretakers were asking for volunteers, he thought it would be a great outreach for St. Mark’s. “I liked that it was an opportunity to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with residents of the community and to build relationships,” he said.
Anthony Bond, past-president and founder of the Irving Chapter of the NAACP, said he’s grateful to the volunteers from St. Mark’s who have taken an interest in maintaining the burial site. “This is God’s work through all people,” Bond said. “God is love, that’s what this represents. My heart is filled with joy and thanksgiving.”
More than 60 volunteers from the region arrived throughout the day to help with the effort. “We are taking care of sacred ground,” said St. Mark’s parishioner Katherine Nelson as she helped to paint fences and unearth stumps. “It’s our honor and duty to do this.”
During a current time of national racial tension, working with a diverse, multi-cultural group to care for a slave cemetery is a great way to strengthen a community, Corley said.
Each clean up comes with a deep sense of purpose and harmony, said Nicole Foster, St. Mark’s director of Christian formation. “This took us out of the church building and into the community, and helped with racial reconciliation. And now we have meaningful relationships with people who live in Irving and are un-churched,” Foster said. “The outreach was healing for everyone. Some of the people we worked side-by-side with are now coming to St. Mark’s. It’s such a beautiful experience.”
Bond said he is grateful for the leadership and hard work St. Mark’s brought to the cause, and also for the love and care of the volunteers. “The outreach that St. Mark’s has done is immeasurable and invaluable. They are so full of passion and fervor. They legitimized this project,” Bond said. “How can you thank a whole church? I will pray that God and His Son Jesus and the Holy Spirit will continually bless all the efforts of this wonderful House of God, and each and every member of it. All of Irving should visit this church and experience the love of Christ.”
— Kimberly Durnan is director of communications in the Diocese of Dallas.