The dark shadows of Oak Cliff

Beneath the near-utopian surface of our neighborhood lurks mystery and dark history.
 
Underneath what looks, on the surface, like a near-utopian area — where the well-heeled of Dallas stroll to restaurants, cyclists traverse the streets and mommies push baby buggies — lurks mystery and dark history that might change the way you perceive our neighborhood, by way of exploring some of its mysteries and lore.

The Texas Theatre

231 W. Jefferson

The Texas Theatre could totally have ghosts. The basement, where a screening of “Fight Club” was once held, could have a whole family of phantoms.

The basement of Texas Theatre / Photo by Benjamin Hager

Instead, the theatre is known for something else.

The Texas Theatre at night. Photo by Benjamin Hager

At least once a day, employees of the theater are asked to point out “the seat.” That’s the seat near the back on the right hand side of the theater where police nabbed Lee Harvey Oswald after the JFK assassination.

“He didn’t pay for his ticket,” says Oak Cliff entrepreneur Julie McCullough Kim, who sometimes puts on events at the theater. “So that’s why they called the cops, because they were like, ‘This guy doesn’t have a ticket.’ ”

Kim’s dedication to the theater is profound. She recently had the theater’s famous Texas sign tattooed on her right forearm.

Since a group of young filmmakers, Aviation Cinemas, took over management of the theater last year, it has become a popular hangout, as well as a place to see classic and independent movies.

And the theater’s notoriety, or infamy, somehow makes it even more hip.

The theater recently started selling T-shirts printed with the image of Oswald’s face, which garnered national media attention. There was some outrage. Why celebrate an accused assassin?

Photo by Benjamin Hager

“I think that’s reading too much into it. It’s really just history,” says Eric Steele of Aviation Cinemas. “It’s just part of the history, and its not making a statement on anything.”

At $17 a pop, the shirts typically sell out soon after they are printed. The theater also sells a shirt bearing the image of Howard Hughes, who built the theater in 1934, but those don’t sell as well.

“Every single day, usually before we open, we get a group of people who come in from out of town, and they want to just look around,” Steele says.

And it is the Oswald connection that leads them there.

“The mystery of the building is what’s intriguing. It’s not that there are ghosts, but there are really interesting pieces of history,” he says. “All the mystery associated with the building is what gives it a spooky feel. It’s just got a lot of historical ghosts, figuratively speaking.”

Oak Cliff Cemetery

1300 E. Eighth St.

When Kristi Coleman first visited Oak Cliff Cemetery with her husband 20 years ago, they happened upon human bones the earth had purged.

“I said, ‘We gotta get out of here,’” she recalls.

The African American portion of the cemetery, which dates from around 1840, is at the rear, in a low place where water from the rest of the cemetery drains. And occasionally, bones come up from the ground. She saw bones again several years ago, when she brought her two children.

The Oak Cliff native started researching the cemetery, which probably is the oldest public burial ground in Dallas, about five years ago. Buried there are three Dallas mayors, the founder of Skillern’s Drug Store, Gen. Sam Houston’s son, artist Edward G. Eisenlohr, and Leslie Stemmons, the businessman who donated land for Stemmons Freeway.

And there is more to this old cemetery than a lot of prominent names.

Coleman has found more than a few fascinating stories.

At least a couple of murder victims are buried there, she says. One is a man whose wife stabbed him while she was preparing a picnic for them.

“Of course, there are lots of terribly tragic stories about kids eating poison or falling off the viaduct,” she says. “But I tried to find some funny ones, too.”

A Bavarian immigrant buried there was the first zither player in the United States and played French horn in first Dallas Symphony Orchestra. He married a French girl born in the La Reunion utopian community.

Kristi Coleman was born and raised in Oak Cliff. She has been researching Oak Cliff Cemetery for about five years. Photo by Benjamin Hager

There is an archeologist who dug up thousands of relics from Indian mounds and a young man who died when a dance hall collapsed on the dancers.

An executioner from Oklahoma Indian Territory executed more than 300 Native Americans before meeting his maker in Dallas, and he is buried in Oak Cliff Cemetery.

When commissioner of streets Gus Wiley died in 1931, it was reported that all 150 “negro garbage collectors” looked on him as a father and went to him for advice. They parked their garbage wagons along the cemetery road at the funeral, alongside “shining limousines.”

A man once visited the caretaker of Oak Cliff Cemetery and offered him $2,000 to dig up a grave. His offer went as high as $15,000, but the caretaker refused. The man claimed $30,000 was in the casket.

A nice-looking girl came into town with two sky writers. She was sick, and they left her. She died with no identification, and newspapers all over the nation printed her description. They received thousands of letters, but never found her identity. Finally, she had to be buried. Cliff Temple Baptist Church was packed for her funeral.

Wild Bill Evans was a fiery evangelist with 25,000 converts. He once was trying to get to a man at the back of the church, but the aisles were too crowded so he ran on top of the pews to the back.

Sarah Frances Abbott was a rebel to the end. Someone gave her a blue dress, which she refused because it was Yankee color. She hated anything Yankee.

There are many more, including a Seminole Indian Chief and a Gettysburg soldier.

Coleman wants to put together a tour of the Oak Cliff Cemetery with actors playing out the characters buried there. If she does, we will report it here at the Oak Cliff Advocate.

The Barrow filling station

1221 Singleton Blvd.

The Barrow family residence was attached to the HB Barrow Filling Station, on what is now Singleton Boulevard. It was firebombed twice while they lived there. Photo by Robert Bunch

Clyde Barrow lived with his family in a shotgun house in West Dallas. After Clyde moved out on his own, his dad, Henry, received an insurance settlement and decided to open a filling station with the money.

He put some mules to work and moved the little house to what was then Eagle Ford Road, now Singleton Boulevard, a few blocks away.

Marie Barrow, Clyde’s younger sister, was sitting in her room as it went down the road, says Bonnie & Clyde expert Ken Holmes.

The Barrows lived and worked there for many years.

In October 1938, someone threw a Molotov cocktail on the roof of the building. It was the second time the home had been bombed. Police accused S.J. “Baldy” Whatley, whom a newspaper reporter described as a “23-year-old Dallas hoodlum.”

Whatley and the Barrows, especially Clyde’s younger brother L.C. Barrow, had been feuding for some time.

On Sept. 4, 1938, someone fired shotgun blasts into the filling station late at night and injured Clyde’s 65-year-old mother, Cumie. And a week before the second bombing, Clyde’s dad, Henry, had found an unexploded stick of dynamite outside his window.

Even after all those attacks, the Barrow filling station still stands. On a visit there recently, the front door swung open in the wind, burn marks still visible.

Holmes doesn’t like to talk about ghosts ever since a TV program tried to get him to muse on the ghosts of Bonnie & Clyde several years ago. He thinks it’s a lot of hooey.

But the Barrow family filling station still seems creepy.

“I guess it must be. You keep saying that,” he says. “There’s nothing spooky about it, I don’t guess.”

The Barrow family graves

Western Heights Cemetery, 1617 Fort Worth Ave.

On a spring day in 1934, about 100 mourners gathered at Western Heights Cemetery on Fort Worth Avenue.

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow became world famous bank robber/murderers. But Parker was married to someone else, and the two were not buried together.

During the graveside service for notorious outlaw Clyde Barrow, on May 25, 1934, a plane flew low and dropped flowers on the cemetery with a note reading, “From a flyer friend.”

Everyone knew that day would come. Clyde Barrow was only 25, but lawmen had been pursuing the robber and murderer for months. To be captured alive meant a certain date with the electric chair.

Family and friends had buried Clyde’s older brother, Buck, at the same cemetery on Aug. 1, 1933. He had been shot about a week earlier during a police raid on the Barrow gang hideout in Iowa. And Clyde’s parents, Henry and Cumie Barrow, did not buy a headstone for Buck, whose real name was Marvin. Legend has it they were waiting for Clyde’s funeral to make the purchase.

After Clyde finally met his death in Louisiana, he was buried next to Buck, and per his request, their gravestone reads “Gone but not forgotten.”

On the anniversary of Clyde Barrow’s death in 1968, the headstone was stolen. An anonymous tipster led police to the stone, which was stashed in the bushes near a North Dallas creek.

Bonnie Parker’s gravestone also was stolen on the anniversary of their death in 1958, but she had not been buried near Barrow. A newspaper article from 1934 states she had requested to be buried next to him, but her request was not granted. That could be because Parker never divorced the man she wed at 16.

At least two churches have been caretakers of the cemetery since 1934, but it has gone through periods of neglect over the years. A firefighter mowed it a few years back, says Ken Holmes of Oak Cliff, who owns the Bonnie & Clyde Ambush Museum in Gibsland, La. But now it’s in the care of the Dallas Pioneer Society. The cemetery is open to the public, but sometimes the gate is locked, he says, because the pioneer society wants to keep people from driving into the cemetery. Holmes takes tour groups to the cemetery regularly, and he say he always leaves the gate ajar, but the guys who mow always lock it.

“It needs to be unlocked,” Holmes says. “People come from all over the world to see that grave.”

Two hundred forty six people are buried in the 130-year-old Western Heights Cemetery, including several Dallas pioneers and veterans of the Civil War. Their names are recognizable to few. But the little cemetery near the Belmont Hotel has lured the curious because of one of our city’s most notorious criminals for the past 85 years.

Clyde Barrow grave trivia:

1. When Buck was buried, his parents didn’t buy a headstone right away; legend has it, they were waiting for Clyde’s inevitable death before purchasing a stone.
2. Buck’s birth date is engraved incorrectly on the stone as 1905; he was born in 1903.
3. The epitaph “Gone but not forgotten” was Clyde’s idea.
4. Bonnie Parker never was buried there, although her brother Buster was a pallbearer at Buck’s funeral.
5. Henry and Cumie Barrow, Clyde’s parents, are buried near him.


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