After long languishing as an incomplete plan to honor the region’s first settlers, work is now progressing to do what should have already happened.
Historians have created a good record of Colonel Middleton Tate Johnson, often identified as the father of Tarrant County, but I imagine that many who are reading this will not recognize who he was or what he did.
Nor would many of the thousands that pass by his Arlington grave site every day. More about that in a moment.
His role of establishing the first community in our area that would become today’s Arlington would be just the beginning of his influence felt far beyond.
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After serving in the Alabama state legislature at the age of 22, he made his way to Texas in 1839 where he would become a Texas Ranger and then settle his family in 1848 on a land grant that became known as Johnson Station.
It was located on the only road between the communities to the east and west traversed by a stage coach line. Some say a depression along the ground near the intersection of South Cooper and Mayfield Road in Arlington marks the spot.
His cotton plantation, with the labor of many slaves, flourished and he became one of the richest and most influential men in the area.
He sought the office of lieutenant governor in 1849 but lost. In four consecutive years thereafter, he sought the office of governor but was never elected.
Records confirm his leadership in the founding and organizing of Tarrant County and donating the land in 1861 for the courthouse.
He opposed Texas’ succession as the state joined the Confederacy but went on to serve as a regimental commander then was elected to the state constitutional convention after the Civil War ended.
While in Austin, he suffered a stroke, and died at the age of 56.
A lengthy obituary in the Dallas Weekly Herald recognized him as a leader in the development of the Republic and State of Texas. It concludes, “The death of such a man as Col. Johnson would, at any time, be felt as a great loss to society, the country, and a real loss to the whole state.”
He was buried in the state cemetery in Austin and in 1870 local Masons are credited with moving his body home to Arlington.
And, that brings us to what’s taking place right now to memorialize the cemetery where he, and family members among an estimated 80 others, including his plantation slaves, were laid to rest.
The Arlington Heritage Cemetery Committee, made up of some 20 diverse volunteers from across the county, (full disclosure, here – I’m serving among them) with historic knowledge, research skills, and fundraising abilities are pursuing an ambitious agenda.
If successful, it will finally transform the vandalized and forgotten corner in local history into a place that honors and celebrates our founding citizens.
The work, under the leadership of the committee’s chairman, County Commissioner Andy Nguyen, is making good progress toward restoring headstones and marking grave sites of the unknown that have been identified by scientific ground penetrating technology.
An entry gate will open to a pathway through the property, and fencing will secure the cemetery to make it a visitor’s destination complete with the stories of the origins of the region.
Geraldine Mills, Executive Director of the Arlington Historical Society has pursued this project for many years and explains, “It doesn’t matter if they were noted leaders such as Col. Johnson or if they worked the cotton fields, tended animals, or cooked the food, they all contributed to our town.
“They must not be forgotten.”
Richard Greene is a former Arlington mayor and served as an appointee of President George W. Bush as regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency.