WAXAHACHIE, TX — The story begins in Freedman, a small community located within the city limits of Waxahachie. The all-black area derived its name following the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. From the early 1900s until desegregation was implemented with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Freedman flourished. “It was its own little community,” City Councilman Chuck Beatty said. “Freedman was booming with barber shops, clubs, food establishments, carpenters, charcoal makers, doctors and convenience stores. We had everything we needed to be self-sufficient. The only things we shared with the whites were the Piggly Wiggly and Hickerson’s Food Store,” he added with a grin.
Landmarks in Freedman were many, but the one that initially comes to mind when reminiscing are the religious institutions. Samaria Baptist Church, the first black church in Freedman, also listed as the first black church in Waxahachie, was organized soon after the Civil War. Although the church building has gone through severe alterations that left very little of its historic fabric intact, it remains an active and prominent church within the black community. Additional structures built by other black religious organizations include Joshua Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1917 and New Mount Zion Baptist Church in 1927.
Black history holds a great deal of meaning for those, like Chuck, who were growing up in the Freedman community as the changes were implemented. Chuck was born in Midlothian, but reared in Waxahachie. He fondly recalls his trip to North Texas State University, now the University of North Texas. “George Brown, the first black mayor of Waxahachie,” Chuck said, “drove me to college.”
The advice George gave Chuck on that ride is the same advice that brought Chuck home, and it’s the same advice he tries to live by on a daily basis. “George told me to always remember to make contributions to society,” Chuck explained. “Use the talents God gave you, and never let anyone tell you differently.”
On that day, Chuck told George he’d be back to Waxahachie one day to make his contributions to his hometown. “I made George a promise,” Chuck said. “I was bound and determined to see it through.”
Chuck did make it back home, but not until he made his mark in the National Football League. His post-football career consisted of 30 consecutive years of service to the Boy Scouts of America, being elected to the Waxahachie City Council and serving as the third black mayor of Waxahachie from 1997 to 2002. He continues to serve as a city councilman today.
More than likely, it was this service to community that brought the task of Freedman Memorial Plaza to Chuck’s realm of responsibility. “Former City Manager Bob Sokoll gave me the task of honoring Waxahachie’s three black mayors,” Chuck said, pride for the honor still present in his voice. “I decided to expand on the task to include the entire Freedman community, as well as some other individuals. So many blacks have
made significant contributions, and I felt like they all needed to be memorialized and honored.”
Land on which to build the park was the first item on the agenda. The land was donated to the city by former Dallas Cowboy and city councilman, Broderick Sargent. “He made the donation in honor of his grandparents, Ira and Myrtle Sargent and Delmar and Gertrude Erskine,” Chuck stated. “Delmar had once owned a barber shop in Freedman.”
Once the land was secured, the plans for Freedman Memorial Plaza were drawn up. While the park was being erected, Chuck was busy researching all those in the Freedman community who had a made a difference. Certain criteria needed to be met before individuals could
be added to the memorial. “You had to have been born in Waxahachie or have lived in Waxahachie,” Chuck explained. “You had to have made a significant contribution, while also being of good moral character.”
The list was amazingly lengthy. It was so large that Chuck had to make a few changes in midstride. “I knew we weren’t going to be able to list every single name because there were so many,” he admitted, “so it was decided that we would list all the different categories where the contributions had been made. It was the only way to manage all those who needed to be honored.” Categories include, but are definitely not limited to, caregivers, educators, doctors and aviators.
Chuck will never forget the day when the ribbon cutting for Freedman Memorial Plaza was held — July 6, 2007. Hundreds of people of all colors had gathered to see history in the making. “Seeing people come together to celebrate black history was something else,” he confessed. “It gave all of us who worked on this project a great sense of pride.”
Explaining the significance of the memorial caused emotion to well up in Chuck’s voice. “The rows on the concrete path symbolize cotton, and the broken chains on the ground represent the end of slavery and emancipation,” Chuck said. “The path leading into the park
is descending, symbolizing hallowed ground and the heart of the matter. The memorial found in the center of the park was structured of black granite that came from South Africa.”
The names of different black community leaders and contributors are inscribed on the granite. Names include City Councilmen Roy L. Borders; Will Andrews; H. Henry Herford; Cohn Tatum; A.D. Sweatt; Broderick Sargent; Emmanuel Cleaver, who went on to be the first black mayor of Kansas City and is currently serving as a U.S. Congressman from Missouri; T.J. Patterson, who is mayor pro-tem of Lubbock and who’s also had a library named in honor of him and his wife; and Willie Albert Tipton, who was an aviator in the military and later became the interim president of Prairie View – A&M University. Bessie Coleman, the first black female in United States history to earn her pilot’s license and the first female to earn an international aviation license, was honored in Freedman Memorial Plaza the day following the ribbon cutting. “She flew for the enjoyment of flying,”
The park is an ongoing work with plenty of space for expansion. “Every two years names are added to the wall,” Chuck said. “It’s going to be up to the younger generation to keep the history alive. If you don’t know where you come from, you’ll never know where you’re going.”
The memorial is a loving tribute dedicated to all the brave souls who rose above their circumstances to make the Freedman community an integral part of the history of Waxahachie. To walk the path and see the wall is to fully understand the symbolism Freedman Memorial Plaza has for the entire community.
Written by Sandra Strong.