Arlington Citizen-Journal

Neglect, vandalism scarred burial grounds. Now Arlington is striving to preserve history

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It’s about respecting history and heritage.

That’s the message put forth by the Arlington Historical Society, the City of Arlington and Tarrant County as they work together to restore the Arlington Heritage Memorial Grounds (AHMG).

The AHMG, located in the 600 block of West Arkansas Lane, is owned and maintained by the Arlington Historical Society (AHS). Although the AHMG is one sacred space, it is actually comprised of three independently established cemeteries: Middleton Tate Johnson Family Cemetery, the Mill Branch Cemetery, and the Colored Cemetery. The small 1.8-acre site serves as a monument to the history of Arlington and Tarrant County with burials spanning more than a century from the 1850s to the 1950s.

Although the AHMG is no longer an active burial site, officials are working together to restore this location to its important place in the history of Arlington. It has been plagued by neglect, vandalism and security problems, said Geraldine Mills, AHS executive director.

“We want to ensure the founders of our city finally get the respect they deserve,” Mills said.

“These pioneers, in their own way, created a strong history of Arlington, and they deserve their dues.”

Chaplain Rich Stoglin, a member of the AHMG Cemetery Committee, said. “We can give them a final, peaceful place to rest without having people walk all over them.”

Stoglin said the area contains around 109 graves, with 33 areas that were thought to be unmarked graves until ground penetrating radar provided by The Tarrant County Archeological Society and the Texas Historical Commission helped identify them. These gravesites will receive markers as part of the restoration project.

Leaders of the effort met recently to celebrate the launch of the collaborative effort. The event was attended by more than 100 volunteers and supporters who have worked for the past year and a half to make this project a reality.

The vision includes installing a wrought iron fence, adding security lighting, restoring gravesites and adding sidewalks that will allow and encourage people to explore the site. Other plans include creating a new entrance, building a parking lot, adding flagpoles, and creating an interactive history tour for visitors.

“If successful, it will finally transform the vandalized and forgotten corner in local history into a place that honors and celebrates our founding citizens,” former Arlington Mayor Richard Greene wrote in a letter to the Star-Telegram.

“We want to make sure when people drive by here it will not go unnoticed,” said Dr. Terry Bertrand, who serves on the AHMG Board of Directors. “Our goal is to develop an inviting setting to give respect to those buried on these grounds.”

The Arlington Tomorrow Foundation has awarded a $50,000 grant for the restoration project, which will start with the new fencing. Other improvements will be made as funding becomes available, organizers said.

At least 108 are known to be buried at the Arlington Heritage Memorial Grounds site. The earliest death dates to 1851, according to records.

The early 1900s saw local black citizens begin to use the area. This was the only place to purchase a plot to bury their family members, and this continued through the early 1950s. The oldest existing headstone in that part is from 1916.

The 1980s and the ’90s saw a growing concern that the historic buildings were placed over some black graves. In the late ‘90s vandals and homeless were again abusing the cemetery. In 2003 the buildings were removed and placed in the newly created Knapp Heritage Park in downtown Arlington.

“The last few years have seen an increase in the homeless and disrespect for this cemetery. Apartment dwellers to the north of the site began to cut through the fence for quicker access to the convenience store located nearby,” Mills said.

Former Tarrant County Precinct 2 Commissioner Andy Nguyen, chairman of the project, said he believes people need to be reminded of the history connected to the area. Like many, he did not fully understand until Mills took him to the grounds almost three years ago.

“I drove by there all the time, but then she gave me a tour and something struck my heart,” he said. “I decided to get involved and help Geraldine.”

Nguyen is the first Asian-American elected as a Tarrant County commissioner. He was born in Vietnam and moved to America in 1981.

“I came here as a refugee, a transplant, if you will,” he said. “This is home for me now. I want to learn from the people buried there. From there lives, their lessons, we can learn. Some lived a month, some lived to over 80.

“I probably could go back to Vietnam and visit my ancestors. It would take a lot of money and time. And here we have ancestors right here where we can go see them any time. We need to respect that and preserve it.”

Along with showing the proper respect for those buried in the area, Mills said the project serves as a much-needed history lesson.

“All of our citizens should know about the pioneer families who settled this area and grew our town to become the city it is today,” she said. “Among the burials here are black and white soldiers who participated in the Civil War, World War I and World War II. Many belonged to fraternal organizations such as the Order of the Masons.

“Each of these families gave of their time and talent to assure Arlington would be successful. Whether they opened a business, built a home, a church, school or road, plowed a field with a team of mules picked cotton or repaired a car. Together they built a town. Our town.”

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