In the Garden of Eden
An African American family's 145-year-old neighborhood is Fort Worth's newest historic district.
By Tricia Vita | Online Only | Feb. 25, 2005
Five minutes from downtown Fort Worth, there's a neighborhood known as the Garden of Eden, which its founders, the Cheney-Sanders family, named in 1860 for its streams, natural springs, and orchards.
"This land has not been touched by anybody except Indians and us," says Andrew Sanders Jr., whose great-great grandfather, Major Cheney, was heir to a land grant of 300 acres that dated back to the 1840s, when Texas was a Republic. "We were here before the Civil War," says Sanders, the family's self-appointed historian.
Last month, the Garden of Eden-Carson Street neighborhood was named Fort Worth's first African American cultural and historic district. "Our group was very pleased to see this go forward very swiftly through the city system," says Jerre Tracy, executive director of Historic Fort Worth Inc., a local preservation organization, who notes that the other five districts are in the city center. "It just speaks so highly of the family who received that rare pre-Civil War land grant and has been able to keep that family connection. Now they have an opportunity to build on it."
The past few months have been a whirlwind of activity for Major Cheney's descendants, about 250 of whom still live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, including 15 to 20 residents of Carson Street. In December, their new neighborhood association was the surprise winner of Fort Worth's 2004 Neighborhood of the Year. "For the overall outstanding achievement in both beautification and social revitalization efforts in your neighborhood, the Garden of Eden Association has truly gone above and beyond in helping make Fort Worth a great place to live," reads the award certificate.
The family worked hard for that recognition. Last May, Sanders' sisters, Brenda Sanders-Wise and Trina Sanders-Leach, sprang into action when an e-mail from the city alerted them to an auction of property on Carson Street and a zoning change that would make part of their street a "light industrial" area.
"What that meant to us was a salvage yard," Sanders-Wise says, "so we wrote to the city council explaining that this is historic property and we live in houses on the same side of the street."
A petition drive supported by 92 per cent of the property owners helped them convince the city to change the zoning to "single family." At the same time, the family started a neighborhood association, adopting the motto "Neighborhood DNA—Defining Our Neighborhood's Assets."
"Each time we spoke at city council meetings, we were always last on the agenda, but we stayed each time, all day long," says Sanders-Wise, who finally took their cause directly to the mayor. "I proceeded to tell him who we were, how long we've been here, and what we're asking for: city services." The morning after her meeting with the mayor, trucks were repaving Carson Street, a job the family had been trying to get done for years. The success of these two projects spurred the group to apply for historic district status and formed the basis of a cooperative working relationship with the city.
"They will serve as a model for other historic African American communities," says W. Marvin Dulaney, executive director of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture in Charleston. "Texas' black communities like the Garden of Eden have tended to last longer and survive the threat and encroachment of developers longer than those in other places in the South. There are still all-black towns in Texas, dating from the 19th and early 20th centuries."
The Garden of Eden's oldest house dates from just prior to 1900, three others were built c. 1900, and the rest were built just after. "It's really quite an unusual piece of property for this part of Texas. But the real importance of these houses is that they were all built on site by members of the family as the generations grew up," says Julie Williams Lawless, senior planner and historic preservation officer for the city of Fort Worth. "The integrity of the district really relies much more on the cultural and historical development of the family and how they contributed to the community than the actual architecture itself."
In 1891, Major Cheney donated a half of an acre for a site for the first school for blacks in the area, the Birdville Colored School, which closed in 1906 and was later demolished. His daughter, Dollie Cheney, donated a parcel of land for Valley Baptist Church, which today is one of the oldest black churches in Fort Worth.
For years, the Cheney-Sanders family has compiled a full record of its own history. James Sanders Jr., now 58, started writing down his family's history when he was a college student. "I looked around and I said, 'There's got to be a reason for all these folks being here and doing what they did,'" he says. Today, he can point to the line on the census of 1860 that places his great-great grandmother, Malinda Loyd Cheney, in the Garden of Eden when she was seven years old. The 1870 census lists numerous family members, some with an "m" beside their name for mulatto, which led Sanders to the discovery that Major Cheney's father was a white settler from Tennessee.
Sanders owes his fascination with his family's past to his great-great aunt Dollie Cheney, a spellbinding storyteller who taught him to read. "She had so much history. And it seemed like it was all true," he says. He retells the story of her father, Major Cheney, who rode with Sam Bass, Texas's most famous outlaw: "A lot of the gold coins they got were supposedly buried between here and Mineral Wells, here and Dallas, here and Hillsboro." There's also the story of Cheney being sewn up in a buffalo hide by the Indians and left to die on the prairie: "A family that was also migrating to this part of Texas found him and put him in their wagon. When he got here, he found his relatives, and the rest is history," says Sanders, who plans to write a book about documented facts as well as the family's oral traditions.
In the meantime, the family is preparing an application for listing the Garden of Eden on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as making long-range plans to build a museum. "We'll have a nature trail in the back, and a bird sanctuary, and a petting zoo," Sanders-Wise says. "And we'll use the house at 1420 Carson Street to start the tour. "
Tricia Vita is a journalist who lives in New York.
For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.