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Carrollton’s Black Pioneers Remembered

Volunteers honor Juneteenth through service and history

Reverend Willie Rainwater looked over the crowd of volunteers with gratitude. A motley crew of young and old, black, brown, and white, each representing diverse faith backgrounds, worked together to clean up the historic Carrollton Black Cemetery over the Juneteenth weekend.

Volunteers equipped with rakes, tree-trimming tools, paintbrushes, and trash bags restored the black cemetery to a respectful and orderly state.

“It’s not a celebration of Juneteenth. It’s an education of Juneteenth,” said Rainwater, a Carrollton civic leader.

Rev. Rainwater and his wife, Juanita, share a mission to preserve history and enlighten the community about the remarkable past of Carrollton’s early black settlers. Through their non-profit organization, Christ Community Connection, they organize the annual cemetery cleanup and other events that honor the legacy of early black history.

“Look at the people here—different backgrounds, races, and religions—all working together. The more we collaborate, the more we realize our differences are minuscule compared to what unites us,” stated Carrollton Mayor Steve Babick.

The Legacy of Carrollton’s Early Black Settlers

For over 50 years, Rev. Rainwater, now 80, has been an advocate and caretaker of the Carrollton Black Cemetery. This endeavor holds deep personal significance for him. Among the few remaining headstones, one bears the name of his great-grandfather, Pield Davis. Unfortunately, years of flooding from the Trinity River and acts of vandalism have nearly obliterated all other headstones, leaving numerous graves unmarked, save for dozens of simple white wooden crosses.

Gwen Taylor of Richardson stands by the headstone of her great-grandfather Ned Welch. It is one of the few visible headstones remaining in the Carrollton Black Cemetery.

The unmarked graves include the final resting places of Rainwater’s ancestors, black veterans, black Americans, and formerly enslaved people who played pivotal roles in the establishment and development of the community.

“[The cemetery] holds the remains of many who helped make Carrollton a community. They built the foundation. Black people lived here before Carrollton even became a city. They are the true original settlers,” said Rainwater. “The spirit and soul of Carrollton.”

Before Carrollton adopted its present name in 1913, the area was known as Elm Fork Settlement—a predominantly black farming community and home to families and veterans during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Preserving History

To learn the stories of those who were laid to rest in the Carrollton Black Cemetery is to better understand black history in North Texas and the events following enslaved people learning of their emancipation in 1865. 

“Our future is bright knowing our past,” said Rainwater. 

Preserving the cemetery and its history has been an extraordinary effort undertaken by the Rainwater family. In the late 1970s, Rainwater’s mother, Annie Heads Rainwater, successfully prevented the cemetery from being bulldozed when a developer expressed interest in the land. A lawsuit filed by Annie in 1980 safeguarded the property and ensured its protection from future development.

Today, the cemetery is enclosed by a chain-link fence, nestled within a warehouse district off Belt Line Rd. Following the legal battle, its status as a historical site granted it protection by the state.

Reverend Willie Rainwater

Rev. Rainwater continues championing the stories of civil rights, and all that early black Americans did for the Carrollton area. His desire to do so runs in the family blood. His mother, Annie, is most notable for leading efforts to end segregation in the Carrollton-Farmers Branch School District in 1963. Two years after her passing in 1994, CFB-ISD honored Annie by naming an elementary school after her.

Uniting Through Respect, Love, and Learning

Victor Johnson, Carrollton Neighborhood Advisory Commissioner, and Elder Jon Cannon, an Area Seventy with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, work together to touch up the paint of the unmarked graves.

“As we commemorate Juneteenth, engaging in community service together is a wonderful way to pay tribute. However, delving into the rich black history of your local area is a truly beautiful way to honor Juneteenth,” expressed Elder Jon Cannon, an Area Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a volunteer from Flower Mound.

Rev. Rainwater and his family are passionate about educating others so that history is not lost or forgotten. As a U.S. Army veteran, Rev. Rainwater strongly advocates for the recognition of black veterans in North Texas. Additionally, he and his wife, Juanita, were the pioneers behind the establishment of the MLK Parade in Carrollton, which will celebrate its 30th annual parade in January 2024.

“The number one message I want everyone to understand is respect, love, and learn to unite, said Rainwater. “Here, everybody forgets about their color; they laugh, smile, and sweat together. We learn to come together as people of God, work together, respect, and forgive.”

“My heart is full just thinking about how my ancestors would feel about the work I’m participating in today to preserve history,” reflected Chevelle Pridgett, Community Outreach Specialist for the Church of Jesus Christ in Lewisville.

Volunteers at the Juneteenth cemetery cleanup included Christ Community Connection, the Carrollton American Legion chapter, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and City of Carrollton employees.

This article also appeared in The Carrollton Leader on June 20, 2023.

Photos by Clairissa Cooper

Clairissa Cooper is the Assistant Director – Media in the Dallas Coordinating Council for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

By Clairissa Cooper

Clairissa Cooper is a freelance marketing professional and photographer. For The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she serves as an Assistant Director – Media for the Dallas Coordinating Council and a marketing and media specialist for Community Life Help.