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Disappearing Black Denton

Migration to Denton County

The Civil War was particularly hard on railroad lines across the south. Much of the established railways in Alabama were either destroyed by the Union or taken apart for repurposing by the Confederacy. In 1871, The Texas and Pacific Railroad began construction into North Texas while the Georgia Pacific repaired and expanded a connected line into the Deep South. On August 11, 1876, the Texas Pacific Railroad opened service from Chambers County, Alabama, to Sherman, Texas. This connection would prove pivotal in the establishment of the St. John’s Community.

Louis Whitlow Sr., formerly enslaved in Chambers County, Alabama, saved money from emancipation until 1880 to move to Texas. He left Chambers County, Alabama after harvest in the fall of 1880 and took sixty-five freedmen and women by train to a new life in Sherman, TX. Upon arrival, part of the group moved south and founded the Oakdale community while the other portion of the Chambers County migratory group stayed behind in Sherman. The majority of Chambers County migration occurred between 1881 and 1888.

County Line Baptist Church was founded by Louis Whitlow Sr. in Oakdale, a small freedmen’s community on the northern county line between Denton and Cooke Counties, in 1881. By 1890, Whitlow had saved enough money to purchase 150 acres -- at the high price of twenty dollars per acre -- in the southwestern corner of the Charles Smith survey, about three hundred yards from the northwest corner of the aforementioned boundaries of the St. John’s community. The County Line Baptist Church was new and without common burial grounds in the early years, so when Washington Whitlow (the likely brother of Louis Whitlow Sr.) died in 1891, he was buried in St. John’s Cemetery. Cross membership was common as preachers delivered sermons on a circuit. Founding members of County Line Baptist Church, Aaron Phillips and Hezekiah Griffin Sr., both married women from the St. John’s community. Later, many St. John’s congregants would become members of County Line as their church and community disappeared.

The first record of St. John’s in Pilot Point was on January 30, 1886. John Skinner sold two acres of land to John Burton, Joe Medders, and Abram Lyles for a Baptist Church. In 1885, Abram Lyles already owned six acres in the J. M. Moses survey and 100 acres of the Sylvester Williams survey. John Burton owned one half of an acre of the William Neil survey in the same year. Unless Joe Medders went by Meadows, he did not own any land in 1885. The St. John’s Baptist Church is rumored to be a re-congregation of the eponymous church in Chambers County, Alabama. This oral tradition is not supported by historical documentation; however, that could be a product of the lack of St. John’s Church records altogether. 

On an acre and a half one mile northeast of St. John’s Baptist Church lies a cemetery of the same name. The first known burial in St. John’s Cemetery is that of Angeline Williamson, one of the sixty-five who traveled with Louis Whitlow Sr. from Chambers County, in 1882. Angeline lived in the Oakdale community, just across the northern county line. The next two burials were also from Oakdale. Charles Oliver died in 1883 and was followed by his wife, Peggy, in 1884. Burials in St. John’s picked up in 1889 and an average of one person per year was buried in the cemetery from 1889 until 1925. The last confirmed burial in St. John’s was George Truitt who died on July 16, 1938.

While much effort has been made to use burial as a way of discerning community membership, the data available lends an alternative explanation. St. John’s served the Pilot Point community of freedmen from 1882 until 1916 when Pilot Point Memorial cemetery began interring large numbers of the community instead. Both cemeteries had burials between 1916 and 1925 when St. John’s no longer had new burials (with the notable exception of two in the late 1930s). In fact, it appears as though any headstones in Pilot Point Memorial Cemetery prior to 1916 were moved there as a product of the cemeteries which were relocated during Lake Ray Roberts construction. Therefore, St. John’s served as the cemetery for the totality of the Pilot Point Freedmen’s Community until the early 1920s where burials were shifted to Pilot Point Memorial Cemetery near downtown Pilot Point.