St. Mary's Cemetery Association members said they are looking for restoration of an historically black cemetery they say Creek Land and Cattle owner Blair Dance and his employees desecrated.
The first day of testimony was heard in the civil case over the St. Mary’s Cemetery near Italy on Wednesday in 40th Judicial District Court. The St. Mary’s Historical Cemetery Association filed the lawsuit against Dance after his company began development of property which includes the cemetery grounds, where many of the association members' family members are buried.
The association is seeking compensation for damage to the cemetery in March 2012 by Dance’s company.
Craig Albert, attorney for the cemetery association, told the jury in his opening statement that after Dance purchased property in 2010, which included the cemetery grounds, that no respect was shown to it when developing the area.
“St. Mary’s to us is a peaceful place and it is a connection to the past. Dance changed the cultural topography of the land by running it over with heavy equipment,” Albert said. “They disregarded cemetery artifacts that were used to mark gravestones. These were from poor people who couldn’t afford a headstone.”
Albert said Dance could have done things differently such as posting a public notice at the cemetery and by supervising the work that went on at the site.
Adam Sanderson, one of Dance’s attorney’s, followed Albert in delivering his opening statement. Sanderson told the jury the evidence presented in this case would show that Dance did not desecrate St. Mary’s and knew about the cemetery when he purchased the land.
“There are a couple of things that you need to know about this cemetery. There were weeds waist high and only some monuments were accessible,” Sanderson said. “The other thing you need to know about the cemetery is that it had a barbed wire fence to keep cattle out. There were no monuments on the outside and part of the fence was falling down. Blair’s intention was to clean up the cemetery.”
Sanderson said allegations have been made that Dance constructed a road, installed fence posts and is farming over unmarked graves. It also alleged that there were tire tracks in the cemetery. Sanderson stated that these allegations are not true.
“Graves outside the fence were marked with things like broken bottles,” Sanderson said. “He couldn’t have known that these graves were marked with these things.”
Sanderson said at the time Dance purchased the property, there was no cemetery association in place.
“The cemetery association was formed in September of 2014 not in March of 2012,” Sanderson said. “This case is about one thing — money.”
Elmerine Bell, who has family members buried at St. Mary’s, testified about the condition of the cemetery before an after the work done by Dance’s work crews and about burial practices of the African American community.
Bell told the court she has researched the history of who is buried at St. Mary’s by looking through census records, death records, family histories and using online resources.
Bell said she was in Dallas when she was notified by her brother on March 24, 2012 that she needed to come the cemetery.
“Driving down Hughes Cemetery Road it looked like nothing it had been before. All of the trees and foliage had been knocked down,” Bell said. “There were piles of trees on the ground and puddles of water.”
Bell said she had called Sheriff Johnny Brown but got his voice mail. The next step she took with her brother was to document the area by taking photographs. The photos were shown to the jury. These photos showed objects that were used to mark graves had been moved such as medicine bottles, bricks and homemade headstones out of concrete.
Bell showed the jury several items that were used to make graves. One item was a broken Coke bottle. Bell told the jury that the bottle was used to hold flowers at one time. Another item was a broken piece of a china plate. Bell said it was customary for people to break a plate of the deceased loved one on a grave to break the cycle of death.
Albert asked Bell how she knew the locations of her family members' graves. Bell told him that she had heard stories over the years where her families were located. Bell said that some of her family's graves were located in an area that was covered by foliage.
Albert asked Bell when was her first interaction with Dance. Bell said it was on March 28, 2012, when she was out with the sheriff’s deputies on the property for the second time. Bell said she asked Dance who gave him the authority to remove items and Dance told her that he was the property owner.
Albert asked Bell if the new fence Dance installed violated the rights of the cemetery
“Yes, because there are grave markers 12 feet away from it,” Bell said.
Under cross-examination Sanderson asked Bell what the cemetery association is looking to get from this lawsuit.
“To be made whole. Whatever we get will not be able to replace what has been destroyed,” Bell said. “I don’t think that there is any amount (of money) that would satisfy that.”
Sanderson then asked Bell if Dance would know the significance of the items from graves if he had read books on the subject like she had. Bell said he would not have known that.
Brian Chambers, cemetery association vice president, was called to the stand to testify about his connection with the cemetery and its condition over the years. Chambers like Bell has several family members that are buried at St. Mary’s.
Chambers told the court that he was shown the graves of family members at St. Mary’s when he was growing up.
Chambers said the grave of his great-great-grandparents was located in area that contained a high amount of foliage. He added that while he didn’t know the exact location of their stone, it was comforting to know the area where they were buried.
Albert asked Chambers what his reaction was to the change that took place in that area.
“My reaction was ‘wow.’ It looked like a totally different place. No grass, just dirt,” Chambers said. “That cemetery had a lot of African American history. There were bottles and plates on graves, but they all had meaning. We realize that you can’t put it back the way that it was.”
Chambers said if Dance would have said “let's make it right,” he and the other cemetery association members would not be in court.
Frank Broyles, one of Dance’s attorneys, asked Chambers about the qualifications to be a member of the cemetery association. Chambers said some of the qualifications include the desire to work to improve the cemetery and be a goodstanding member of the community.
Broyles then asked Chambers what gives the authority for the cemetery association to be the voice of other people.
“A lot people that are buried in the cemetery don’t have living relatives. They are all gone,” Chambers said. “It is my opinion that they would want people to look after them.”
Broyles then asked Chambers, since he is named in the lawsuit along with the cemetery association, what he hopes to get out of the trial.
“I never came into this looking for money. I’m blessed to have a job,” Chambers said. “I want the cemetery put back in place. It was a serene place where you go visit your loved ones.”
Testomney in the case will continue at 9 a.m. on Thursday at the historic Ellis Courthouse in downtown Waxahachie.