Friday, August 19, 2022 Aug 19, 2022
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Summer Fiction

Dallas Summer Reading Series: The Leaning Tree

The city and the state tried many times to erase the Freedman’s Cemetery, but Pearlie Mae Jenkins stayed until its history could be known again.
By Sanderia Faye |
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Tatjana Junker

Perched on the limb of the leaning post oak tree, Pearlie Mae Jenkins watched as the young woman struggled down the sidewalk. She carried an armful of brown paper sacks, and a stuffed bookbag hung on her back. She paused briefly at the historical plaque in front of the Freedman’s Cemetery Memorial. When she stood before the bronze monument of The Sentinel (protector of the site from ever being desecrated again), she set her sacks down and bowed to him. Then she knelt in front of The Prophetess, the Griot, and began praying, Iba se Egun

      The young woman made her way to the bench inside the gate and dropped down next to the homeless man. He came almost every day, parked his shopping cart in the grass, outside of the fence, on the northwest side of the cemetery. After organizing her bags, she unfolded her long legs and meandered down the walkway toward the monument of the emancipated couple. She sobbed as she traced the welts on the man’s back with her forefinger. Could she be the one Pearlie Mae had been waiting for? 

       Whenever the cemetery was desecrated, more and more of the interred left. First, eminent domain was invoked in the 1870s to make way for the railroads. Then again in 1949 when Central Expressway was built on top of the cemetery. The workers crumbled the headstones and used them to fill in the holes. Pearlie Mae, her husband, and other formerly enslaved freedmen and freedwomen watched as they bulldozed their graves. Her husband tried comforting her. When the metal banged against their resting place, he cried. They disrespected us in life and in death. Only need one person to stay and tell our families we were here when they come looking for us. So, Pearlie Mae stayed. 

She stayed after the city turned the cemetery into a park, and the elders shooed away the children, warning them not to play on sacred ground. She stayed when they extended North Central Expressway. She stayed when the archaeologists discovered Mary’s headstone. She stayed as they painstakingly uncovered 1,157 graves and reinterred them, leaving thousands undiscovered. She tried to get their attention, I’m Pearlie Mae Jenkins. Any of my folks with y’all? Nobody answered. And now the young woman carried bags with equipment, and repairing the Blue River seemed like a possibility. Pearlie Mae lingered as she meticulously replaced the Texas Red granite and cleaned the riverbed and stones until they shined like it did on the day the memorial was installed. Afterward, she removed each faded plastic flower with the sale tag remaining from the trees and the two markers, got down on her knees with packets of periwinkle seeds, and used a straw to plant each seed in the ground. The homeless man layered with sweaters and an overcoat, without speaking a word, helped her plant the seeds, and later they placed tightly pulled clear plastic over them. When they got to the leaning oak tree, she told him they would get to it tomorrow, and he nodded. Pearlie Mae watched over the two of them throughout the night. 

At sunrise, they returned to the post oak whose branches leaned toward the ground like they carried the burden of oppression. Overwhelmed from watching them plant the seeds, Pearlie Mae whispered in the young woman’s ear, My name is Pearlie Mae Jenkins. It’s carved in the tree. The girl didn’t respond. Again, Pearlie Mae resigned herself to spend forever in the cemetery. But the girl, with the homeless man in tow and Pearlie Mae hovering over them, walked to the bench. She pulled a thick purple binder out of her backpack. Pearlie Mae read the front cover, “Dr. P. Mae Jenkins, Archaeologist, Historian, Black Dallas Remembered.” After all this time, could she be my family? Can you hear me? Pearlie Mae waited until Dr. Jenkins nodded yes, as tears flowed like the water should have in the Blue River. 

My name is P. Mae Jenkins. I was named after you. 

Back at the leaning post oak, Pearlie Mae showed them the ancestors’ names carved in the tree. She read each name aloud, and Dr. Jenkins made a checkmark next to them in her binder. After every name was accounted for, Dr. Jenkins performed a libation ceremony. She spent four nights in the park while Pearlie Mae shared the history of the enslaved and freed people. 

On the fourth day, Dr. Jenkins and the homeless man removed the plastic coverings. The seeds had sprouted plants that would bloom into purple periwinkle flowers. Pearlie Mae realized she had told Dr. Jenkins most of the missing history; soon she would return to her life. 

But she wasn’t ready when, around noon on the fifth day, Dr. Jenkins said thank you and goodbye to the homeless man. I’ll be back next week to check on the periwinkles. He never said a word to her the entire time. Pearlie Mae followed Dr. Jenkins to the exit gate and watched her kneel again at the foot of The Prophetess, displayed inside the niche, for over an hour in prayer. She asked the African monuments to protect and inform her. When she rose, Pearlie Mae told Dr. Jenkins that she was leaving, too, and wouldn’t be there when she returned. Then The Prophetess winked at Pearlie Mae as she ascended to be reunited with her husband and the others.    

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