Waxahachie will mark two grand unveilings honoring some of its finest residents when the Bessie Coleman official Texas historical marker and the Freedman Memorial open to the public July 6 and 7, respectively, at Freedman Memorial Plaza on Martin Luther King Boulevard.
“I think it’s pretty unique for Waxahachie,” said City Councilman Chuck Beatty, an instrumental player in the plaza and Freedman Memorial’s development. “I think it’s going to bring a sense of great pride.”
Nestled in the former business center of the “freedman community,” the Freedman Memorial honors many black residents who made a local impact, including entrepreneurs, educators, medical personnel and professionals with the inscription, “This freedman memorial is a loving tribute dedicated to all the brave and entrepreneurial souls that made the freedman community an integral part of the city of Waxahachie.”
Waxahachie’s three former black mayors, including Beatty, will also be prominently honored on the structure.
Beatty and a committee of volunteers scoured the memories of Waxahachie’s residents for individuals to be honored in the granite, and each name reflects not only an individual’s
contributions, but the influence of an entire family that worked for a better world, Beatty said.
“They understood the power of education,” he said. “Most of them were not that far removed from slavery.”
Lifelong Waxahachie resident Erma Faye Newton utilized her curiosity and research into community history and her own memory to help research information for the monument.
“That was the business part of town for the African-Americans from the 1900s on up until probably the early 1960s, but eventually all those buildings have been torn down,” she said. “We’re just trying to put a memorial down there to keep that legacy alive.”
Organizers were also sure to leave space on the monument for more names, and Beatty said the addition of new names is planned to become an annual event.
The entire plaza offers a symbolic look at the history of Waxahachie’s black community, from long white rows on the walk representing cotton fields to broken chains representing the end of slavery.
“There’s a lot of symbolism involved with the monument,” Beatty said. “It’s not just black history during February — you can have it all year long.”
A separate marker honoring Bessie Coleman, the first black female in the United States to earn a pilot’s license, will also be incorporated into the plaza. The Ellis County Historical Commission applied for and received the official state historical marker from the Texas Historical Commission in 2001, though the group chose to wait until a fitting location became available to place the marker, Ellis County Historical Commission chairman Sylvia Smith said.
“When the Freedman Plaza came along, we knew that was the ideal spot for it, and we feel very privileged to be able to put it there,” she said.
Coleman, born in Atlanta, Texas, grew up in Waxahachie. She attended college briefly before running out of money for her studies, and at the age of 23 she moved to Chicago and worked as a beautician.
After hearing stories from her brother, a returning World War I soldier, about France’s female pilots, she determined to learn how to fly. When no school in the United States would accept her, Coleman studied French in night classes and traveled to France in 1920 at the age of 28, returning with her pilot’s license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale in 1921.
After a return to France for more advance training when American aviation schools again rejected her applications, she began work as a barnstormer and stunt flier, and even performed an exhibition back in Waxahachie in the mid-1920s, becoming famous as “Queen Bess.”
She dreamed of opening a flight school for women, though she was unable to attain that dream before her death.
Coleman died April 30, 1926 in Jacksonville, Fla., in an aircraft accident, and thousands attended her memorial service in Chicago. She was inducted into the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame in 2000, and several flight clubs and schools have been founded in her honor over the years.
The separate marker will make members of the community, especially young people, more aware of Coleman’s achievements and ties to Waxahachie, Newton said.
“(It will) keep that in the memory and see what struggles she had in trying to achieve a goal or dream that she had while she was here,” she said.
Coleman is also honored along with aviators D.R. Butler and Albert Timpton on the Freedman Memorial in addition to the separate marker for the female pilot.
For Newton, the monuments will serve to keep valuable stories and memories from fading away.
“All of this history will be lost if somebody doesn’t dig it up and keep it going,” she said. “We’d hate for this history to be lost.”
Beatty said more than just looking to Waxahachie’s black community’s past, the monuments will look to its bright future. Plans to expand the Freedman’s Plaza area into a larger park are also under way, Beatty said.
“We hope it will inspire future generations,” he said. “It’s been a fun project, a labor of love.”
John Smith with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department said if the property owners of an adjacent lot are willing to sell, the plaza could grow in the future.
“The city would likely entertain the possibility of purchasing the property,” he said.
Smith said his department is already in charge of maintenance for the site and is looking forward to the unveilings as the culmination of several years’ work.
“It’s a very nice plaza and we’re looking forward to its completion,” he said. “I just think it shows what the spirit of Waxahachie’s all about — coming together as one. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, no matter what part of the community you come from.”
The Bessie Coleman Memorial will be unveiled at 5 p.m. July 6 at the Freedman Memorial Plaza, located on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
A ceremony for the Freedman Memorial will be conducted at noon July 7 at the same location as part of the Oak Lawn School and Turner High School reunions.
Property for the Freedman’s Plaza was donated by Broderick Sargeant, a descendent of the Erskine Family, to the Parks and Recreation Department.
Other volunteers who helped make the memorials a reality are Carroll Davis, Mattie Borders, Rufus and Margaret Venters and Bill Lacy.