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'We were here before Fort Worth': A struggle to preserve Texas' historic Black settlements

Kamal Morgan, Fort Worth Star-Telegram on

Published in News & Features

FORT WORTH, Texas — Recycling trucks and work pickups speed down Carson Street, kicking up dust in this small enclave of homes sandwiched between sprawling scrapyards and massive warehouses on the border of Fort Worth and Haltom City.

Trina Sanders has watched her whole life as the industrial buildings have gradually encroached on what was once a vast, fertile farmland in a historic black community called Garden of Eden. She has seen her neighborhood of about a dozen homes turn into a dumping area where companies burned trash, dug gravel pits and filled the air with noise and pollution.

But on her family’s last remaining pocket of green space, squeezed between Airport Freeway and Trinity River, it is still a Garden of Eden. Behind the homes where generations of Sanders have lived are rows of crops and towering old trees, a large pond and a little Baptist church. And a sense of love for their community and enduring vision of what it could be again.

“We were there before them,” Sanders says of the industrial companies, “and we’re still there.”

A team of professors and students from UT Arlington has stepped up to help keep it that way.

Historical Black settlements in North Texas have been threatened for decades by growth. Surviving communities like Garden of Eden must deal with the consequences of urban development and environmental contamination that put their health and safety at risk.

The university team wants to reimagine and provide possibilities for the future of one of Fort Worth’s few remaining historical Black settlements.

‘To invest’ in historical Black settlements

Kathryn Holliday is an architectural historian at the University of Illinois, and previously at UT Arlington, who started the project in UT Arlington.

She was inspired by The Texas Freedom Colonies Project led by Dr. Andrea Roberts in 2014, a social justice initiative to map and preserve disappearing Black settlements in Texas. The project works with descendants of the communities to obtain resources and help with research.

Holliday brought Roberts to two symposiums in 2017 and 2019 to garner interest in the same concept for freedom colonies along the Trinity River in Dallas and Fort Worth.

In March 2021, Holliday along with UTA architecture professors Diane Jones Allen and Austin Allen were awarded a $40,000 grant from the SOM Foundation to create maps of freedmen towns along the Trinity River. The project would create a design playbook to the needs of historic Black settlements in the Metroplex experiencing environmental issues due to explosive urban development.

The other historical Black settlements are Mosier Valley, Irving’s Bear Creek and Dallas’ The Bottom, Elm Thicket and Joppa. According to the project, these communities have declined because of gentrification, cultural erasure, natural disasters, urban renewal and land dispossession. And the remaining descendants of these settlements often lack the resources to protect them.

Cities can do better in supporting the families’ connections to their communities and land, instead of allowing potentially hazardous development around them, Holliday says. These communities built Fort Worth, from those who farmed and brought food to the downtown market to the workers in gravel pits who made the cement for downtown’s skyscrapers. They deserve to be protected and preserved, Holliday said.

“The city is only as good as how it treats everyone, and so we’re asking neighborhoods to be a part of the city and to contribute to its economy, which Garden of Eden did and continues to do, and the city should invest in Garden of Eden, too,” Holliday said.

The Cheneys come to Texas

Sanders was born in the 1960s as one of seven siblings in the family. Her older brother, Andrew Sanders, wrote a book about the settlement of his ancestors called, “The Garden of Eden, The Story of a Freedmen’s Community in Texas.”

The Cheneys came from Kentucky and Tennessee to farm and work the land in the 1830s. Their settlement came years before Fort Worth’s inception in 1849 as an army outpost.

They all settled in a small community in the 1860s between what is now Randol Mill Road and Airport Freeway on the Fort Worth-Haltom City border. It was called Birdville but changed to the Garden of Eden. It was named so because the land was fertile.

Major Cheney, the Cheney-Sanders family patriarch and Sanders’ great-great-grandfather, was born in 1856. He was the child of an unidentified Black enslaved woman and John Cheney, who was white. Major Cheney had 12 children.

After emancipation, both sides of the family maintained cordial relationships, Andrew Sanders writes. Major was gifted the land through a grant which gave single men in the area a tract over 300 acres. The Black Cheneys worked the land, raising livestock and crops to feed themselves and others in their community.

 

By the turn of the 20th century, the white Cheneys had either died or left the Garden of Eden. The Black Cheneys stayed and acquired a sizable amount of property where their descendants still live today.

In 1935, there were 54 people living in the area. Today there are fewer.

After years of raising money from fundraisers such as their annual 5k run, the community purchased 2 acres on the 1300 block of Carson Street in September 2017. Their goal is to build a history and education center named after Major Cheney and his wife, Melinda, to teach people about the history of the community. It would include a nature trail to connect the church and the center.

In 2005, the Garden of Eden historic district was designated by the Fort Worth City Council and became the first African-American cultural district in the city.

Possibilities for the future

The recent spring 2024 semester, professors from UT Arlington’s College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs held classes that worked with community members on envisioning what the neighborhood could be.

Professors Letora Anderson, Joowon Im, and Dennis Chiessa each taught a class that focused on a different aspect in helping Garden of Eden. Anderson’s class focused on sustainable urban design, Im’s class on environmental landscape planning and design, and Chiessa’s on architecture and affordable housing.

They listened to what the community wanted, and their concerns — stormwater runoff from the salvage yard and dumps, soil pollution, no sidewalks, population decline, speeding, heavy truck traffic and a lack of transportation access to the neighborhood.

Other challenges for the community are the designated land uses of the area. According to the 2023 Comprehensive Plan, the current zoning map showed it was a mix of heavy industrial and agricultural land. The final future land use map shows Garden of Eden is in a single family residential zone between two light industrial and a floodwater zone area.

Im said some of these issues should be of concern to people beyond Garden of Eden. Pollution can travel for miles and end up anywhere.

“This issue isn’t their own issue that wouldn’t affect myself, it will eventually get to you,” Im said.

Students created projects with multiple ideas such as having a green infrastructure network to deal with stormwater drainage, an urban sponge to absorb water. There were also suggestions of a park, neighborhood commercial area, and a train station.

These student projects and their suggestions are not the final vision but are concepts of the possibilities the community can present to Fort Worth and Haltom City on how they would like their neighborhood to be.

Anderson said the health, safety and welfare of residents should be protected.

She referenced the Echo Heights neighborhood that confronted the city to acknowledge the environmental concerns in their neighborhood and improve their quality of life. Anderson wants the same for Garden of Eden and other historical Black settlements so their neighborhoods will not be erased.

“Why would you allow all of these industrial uses in this particular neighborhood?” Anderson said. “Why here, why Echo Heights, why is there a commonality?”

On a recent day, Andrew Sanders leans on a car with his book in hand in the driveway of his sister Trina’s home. As recycle trucks and cars fly through Carson Street, he reflects on the land passed down by his ancestors.

Even when companies have tried to buy their property, they always say no because it means too much for every family member.

“We were here before Fort Worth even had a name for itself,” Andrew Sanders said.

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©2024 Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Visit star-telegram.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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