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Disappearing Black Denton

St. John's & Oakdale

In a grove of trees in the northeast corner of Denton County, Texas, lies St. John’s Cemetery. Within its haphazard fencing are the final resting places of several hundred freedmen, women, and children who worked, worshipped, and built a community in Pilot Point, Texas, at the turn of the twentieth century. The first known burial in St. John’s Cemetery is that of Angeline Williamson who died 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 at 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.

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, Texas. Upon arrival, part of the group moved south and founded the Oakdale Community in southern Cooke County near the line with Denton County. The establishment of the Oakdale Community marked the beginning of the greater Pilot Point Freedmen’s Community, the largest association of freedmen in Denton County, Texas.

County Line Baptist Church was founded by Louis Whitlow Sr. in Oakdale in 1881. By 1890, Whitlow had saved enough money to purchase 150 acres – at the high price of twenty dollars per acre – in the southeastern corner of the Charles Smith survey, about three hundred yards from the northwest corner 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 the St. John’s Cemetery. Cross membership was common as preachers delivered sermons on a circuit throughout the greater freedmen’s community. In fact, two of the founding members of County Line Baptist Church, Aaron Phillips and Hezekiah Griffin Sr., both married women from the St. John’s Community. Many years later, as their community disappeared, several St. John’s congregants became members of the County Line Baptist Church.

The first record of St. John’s in Pilot Point was on January 30, 1886. The St. John’s Community was geographically defined as the land which surrounds the St. John’s Baptist Church and St. John’s Cemetery. The center of this location is approximately four miles southeast of the town of Pilot Point, bracketed by Farm-to-Market Road 455 in the north, Sherman Dr. in the south, State Highway 377 in the east, and the Elm Fork of the Trinity River in the west. These boundaries, while rough, give a broad concept of the land which was home to dozens of farms and families in the area called St. John’s by some and “Sam Allen’s Community” by others.       

Community Map of St. John's Cemetery

Community members confirmed as buried in the St. John's Cemetery are indicated with a star. Relationship lines are immediate family relationship (whether through birth or marriage).

The St. John’s Baptist Church is rumored to be  a re-congregation of the eponymous church in Chambers County, Alabama. As a center for the Pilot Point Freedmen’s Community, St. John’s served a religious function as a one-room Baptist Church, a scholastic function as the church shared a home with a one-room school, and a social function. Reverend C. C. Trimble hosted a debate society in 1888 for the members of St. John’s. At their first meeting, they sought to answer the question, “who has been treated worse by white people: Native Americans or African Americans?” Native Americans won the debate. In 1888, a Colored Odd Fellows Lodge opened in Pilot Point with members from all three community centers. This was followed by the Black Masons in the 1920s. Events in St. John’s were of interest to all people in the 1880s, including the white readership of the Pilot Post-Mirror. “The [C]olored people have been carrying on an interesting protracted meeting for two weeks at the [C]olored Baptist church,” one article read. Another told the story of Mr. Jackson, who was hell-bent on keeping his daughter from marrying. Jackson rode into town and informed the Justice of the Peace not to issue a marriage license for Ophelia Jackson and Bill Faust. But Ophelia had spent quite some time giving her father the wrong name of her sweetheart to avoid paternal interference. Minutes after Mr. Jackson left, a marriage license was issued to Ophelia Jackson and George Burton as he was most certainly not Bill Faust.

St. John’s was also a community of sharecroppers and tenant farmers. By 1895, most members of the St. John’s Community owned a buggy or wagon, a pair of horses, a couple head of cattle, and a few hogs. They grew cash crops and raised livestock on reasonable acreage surrounding the church and cemetery. The St. John’s Community used the Mustang alliance gin for their cotton. This reflects a solidly middle-class lifestyle compared to others in the Pilot Point and Denton County area.

As a community, the St. John’s membership supported one another through crises. On May 22, 1888, a storm destroyed much of the farmland and crops of the St. John’s area. August 26, 1896, John Grundy’s home burned and $30 in donations were made by both black and white citizens to help him get back on his feet. A thank you letter was printed in the newspaper signed by both Lewis Whitlow Sr. and Sam Allen.

The people of St. John’s lived and thrived together west of Pilot Point from 1880 until their peak population in 1900. Yet, after the turn of the century, the St. John’s community saw vast membership loss. By 1930, the community was gone leaving a cemetery behind in a wooded area well off main access roads. Even with the visible population decline, it is unknown exactly when St. John’s Baptist Church stopped congregating. Likely, it mirrored the burials in St. John’s Cemetery and stopped around 1925. Some members of the St. John’s Community were absorbed into the other corners of the greater Pilot Point Freedmen’s Community, centered around either St. James Baptist Church or County Line Baptist Church in the early twentieth century. While few members moved into downtown Pilot Point, the remainder of St. John’s Community membership left the area entirely. 

The disappearance of the St. John’s Community was driven by several factors. Some died of disease. In 1911, public health officials were so concerned with Diphtheria that they delayed the start of Elementary School for weeks. While Pneumonia rose in prominence during the outbreak of Influenza in 1918, Tuberculosis was a threat across the years and resulted in more deaths than any other reported cause. Heart Disease and Infection were the third and fourth most common causes of death with neither occurring more often in any single year.

Official Cause of Death for Members of the St. John's Community

There were also economic advantages to leaving the Pilot Point area. An editorial in the Post-Mirror read, “The sugar planters in Louisiana are to a large extent employing white laborers instead of [C]olored, shall we say the Africans, too must go.” This sentiment carried with the white community and areas once blanketed with black farms were leased to white farmers by 1920. In addition, there was a movement to create a black state in Oklahoma. With a new neighbor state full of the promise of equality, it is not difficult to see the draw for members of the St. John’s Community.

But, on December 14, 1922, two unnamed black men were arrested for horse theft in Pilot Point. They were taken to the jail and left unguarded overnight when members of the Ku Klux Klan “spirited” the men from the calaboose. They were lynched the same night they were arrested. This was not the first instance of targeted violence against persons of color in Pilot Point, but it was the last straw for many who fled the area thereafter. Disproportionate law enforcement activity in conjunction with an established pattern of extrajudicial lynching had an impact greater than the actual number of individuals who lost their lives to the metaphorical and literal noose.

At times violence was random, jarring, and struck within the safety of their homes. In 1911, after Will Drake had been arrested for the third time for a petty crime, his wife attempted suicide by poisoning. She utilized carbolic acid and was narrowly saved of her grim fate. In 1921, Ransom Johnson was poisoned while delivering soda to a grocery store and died a painful ten-hour death. On the night of February 8, 1924, a teacher from the African American high school in Denton was found poisoned and her body was taken away too quickly for an autopsy or death certificate. Acts of mob violence served to inform the members of St. John’s of their undesirable status and their expendability.

And so they left.

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Disappearing Black Denton
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