Featured Image Credit: University of Texas, Arlington
I was sitting in the tall grass, black plastic glasses falling off my face, a headlamp to my side. It was in late 2013 and I was in error. I was alone in a nearly forgotten cemetery in Arlington, Texas trying to not remember this. The cold stone of the concrete historical marker pressed into my back. Even in the dark, I could still see the white headstones reflected against the parking lot headlights in the trees. I was sobbing and chugging a bottle of cheap pineapple rum. The glass bottle was heavy in my hand as I washed down a handful of Tylenol. As far as suicide attempts went, it was amateur. I knew I wasn’t going to die, I knew that in the end, what I was trying to kill was something else buried deep inside me that I couldn’t quite forget.
Arlington, Texas is a medium sized city wedged between Fort Worth and Dallas on Interstate 30. There is a university located in Arlington called the University of Texas at Arlington, or UTA for short. It is part of the University of Texas system based in Austin, Texas. It is known as a commuter school. Only about 10,000 of its 38,650 enrolled students (as of Spring 2016) live on or near the university campus. As a result, the campus is a very tame place compared to other universities. Even the campus’s Greek Row, which at other schools is a traditionally rowdy place, is often quiet on the weekends. The most action you might see is a few students playing tennis on the campus courts, swimming in the outdoor pool, or walking through Doug Russell Park to their classes and dorms. The park sits across from the parking lot of Davis Hall, UTA’s administration building.
Doug Russell Park is a small collaboration between the city of Arlington and the university. Part of the land it sits on was donated by the city, and part of it was from the university. Named after Olympic gold medalist and UTA alumnus Doug Russell, the park features quaint walking trails surrounded by large trees. A soccer field sits in the middle of the park, crisp white lines gleaming on sunny days. It is also the location of a cemetery, all that remains of the Berachah Industrial Home for the Redemption of Erring Girls.
I know all this because I was one of the students living on or near UTA campus. From 2013-2015 I found myself living in a cheap, dingy, rent-controlled apartment just barely off campus on UTA Boulevard. The apartment was rented by a friend who needed a roommate after his girlfriend moved out. Desperate for a new place to live, I was in no place to turn the offer down. I was also a woman who had run out of options. My former roommate had gotten bedbugs and I had lost most of what I owned—clothing, books, a brand-new mattress. I needed a place to hang my hat and quickly, so I could start rebuilding my meager possessions.
This was a challenging time for me. I had been sexually assaulted at an arts festival the year before I moved to the apartment, in 2012. Once I had moved, I often would sink into a depression for weeks at a time, only leaving my bed to eat and go to work. Other times, I would be anxious and high strung. I would fly into rages and scream at my friend/roommate over the smallest things, such as a chair not being properly aligned to the wall or a pair of shoes being misplaced. I was in denial and didn’t want to believe what I knew in my heart had happened: I had been raped. I instead choose to mask my pain with the heavy consumption of alcohol. My emotional struggles regarding my assault drew me to the story of Berachah Cemetery and its residents, ghostly and otherwise.
I first found out about Berachah Rescue Home for Erring Girls in early 2012 from a friend who was an amateur ghost hunter. My first visit, me and my friend walked tentatively through the squeaky metal gate, then promptly saw ourselves out of it. We were convinced we had heard ghostly voices in the night air. We weren’t the only ones. The cemetery had attracted some local ghost stories, as one might expect a Victorian Era cemetery nestled in the park of a sleepy college campus would. The cemetery is a popular site for those who would try to contact spirits or seek out paranormal activity. Several ghost hunting groups in the area advertise late night ghost hunts in the cemetery on a regular basis. People call the spot “The Cemetery of Lost Infants.” Visitors claimed the site was tinged with sadness in the air. They reported hearing children crying, seeing children playing out of the corner of their eyes. They also said that they noticed children’s toys would appear before them on headstones, only to disappear a moment later. No one reported spotting any ghosts of the former adult inhabitants of the home. Those women who once lived there had either abandoned the place that perhaps they had experienced great pain and sorrow, or they were conveniently forgotten by local legends.
The word “Err”, according to the Oxford Dictionary online has two meanings. The first is to make a mistake. A mistake implies an accidental, something unintentional, a situation where one is blameless. This second definition of err is more condemning. It means to sin, to do wrong. This definition implies purpose, intention, a way you have chosen to go off course and hurt yourself and/or others. Evangelicals in the South of a certain type use the word “err” to this day to describe a certain kind of woman, one who has fallen and is impure. One who has given herself up to the sin of sexual promiscuity. The use of this word in the full name of Berachah Home tells you something significant about it, and its unique time in history. It does not, however, tell you the full story.
After my first visit, those erring girls kept calling to me. I returned in the light of day to find a peaceful place, quiet as the leaves from the trees sighed in the wind. For a time, these women felt like my only company. Their story resonated with me. I felt like I had erred, though what occurred had not been my fault. I would spend time in the cemetery crying over what had happened to me. I would scream out-loud in frustration over the fact that in five minutes a rapist had destroyed me. It provided a place of shelter from the world when I needed it. I wasn’t entirely sure if Berachah Home was a place where these women wanted to be, or if it was a place of hope. All I could find out was what I could feel in the air. There was a tinge of rebellion to in it, not just peace or sadness. There was a sense of defiance. The women lived beneath my feet and walked with me. They would not live with the expectations that their society held for them. They would not live by rules seemingly designed to make them more holy or attuned with a Christian God. They would not stay silent in the woods while the ghosts of their children cried.
To get to Berachah Cemetery you must first cross a small wooden bridge over what was once called Trading House creek. The creek is next to the parking lot of David Hall. The concrete stairs leading up to this bridge are periodically spray painted with various activist statements by students, most of them fading from sight after time has passed, just like Berachah Home has faded into history.
Once you cross the bridge over the creek to enter the park, to your left is the soccer field, the goal posts white with spots of rust. Within goal scoring distance of the soccer field is a worn plastic park bench. A mere few yards away, hidden in the trees sits the cemetery. It is surrounded by a metal gate, the door of which is often unlatched and creaks when it swings in the spring winds. The grass will be in varying states of growth, depending on whether the university has just mowed the site or not. A concrete marker with a black metal plaque stands at the entrance, it’s text confirming that this site is all that remains of the Berachah Rescue Home.
At first, you can only spot about four markers, taller headstones listing the names of Mattie McBride, Dorothy Myrtle Carter, as well as a headstone memorializing Pearl Simmons, a missionary sponsored by the home who died and was buried in India. You must look down into the tall grass to first see it, the flat concrete headstones with small stone inlays. It makes the hair on your arms stand on end. The details on the headstones regarding the deceased are vague. They often list just a first name, such as “Edward,” “Lura Mae,” “Etta,” “Bryce.” The ones that make your breath catch in your throat don’t list any names: “Infant No. 16,” “Twins 1,” “Infant No. 9.” There are close to eighty souls buried in this cemetery, though the number of markers still standing does not reflect this.
Berachah Rescue Home was opened by Rev JT Upchurch and his wife Maggie Mae Upchurch on May 14th, 1903 for the “redemption of erring girls.” The home was meant to be a haven for women who had been led astray by drugs, prostitution, sexual sin, and other Victorian era immoralities. The girls often arrived pregnant, some fresh from Hell’s Half Acre, a notorious dent of prostitution and vice in neighboring Fort Worth. It is now a modern tourist trap called “The Fort Worth Stockyards” lined with Wild West themed steak houses and gift shops that sell cowboy attire. (Debatably, another form of prostitution altogether.)
Upchurch decided on Arlington as the location to build the home as it was in between Dallas and Fort Worth, a location far enough away from the women’s previous lives that they could start over. The home was built on what was then the edge of town, to keep daily interactions between prying, scandalized townspeople and the residents to a minimum. It was known by both Berachah Rescue Home and Berachah Industrial Home throughout various points of its history. Upchurch choose the name Berachah for the site because the word “Berachah” meant blessing in Hebrew. He named the home this because he wanted the residents of the home to know that they were considered a blessing in God’s eyes. Many did not share his perspective. “Those sinful girls in Arlington” is how the Upchurch’s granddaughter said that people described the residents of the Home.
Regardless of if any of those sinful girls were saved there, Upchurch’s home was by all material measures a success. During its heyday in the 1920s it supposedly housed hundreds of girls. The home was often touted in local newspapers. Upchurch went on radio programs promoting the home to people not just from Texas but Oklahoma, Kansas, and other parts of the South. The home even had a metal sign erected near its location by Bankhead Hwy (now named Division Street). The home had a choir made up of staff and residents that went on a goodwill tour to Canada. The tabernacle on site held well attended revivals with many guest preachers. The success of the home during this time is what made it and Upchurch’s decline in the 1930’s so surprising.
A colorful local figure of his time, James Tony Upchurch, was born in Bosqueville, TX on October 29, 1870. His father died when Upchurch was three years old. He was then shuffled between various family members until his mother decided to raise him herself in Waco, Texas. His mother did not provide any religious education, and Upchurch grew into his teen years an atheist. Upchurch became a Christian at the age of twenty in 1890, having been “saved” by Jesus Christ at a church revival. He married Maggie Mae Adams in 1892, having met her at another revival. Upchurch and his wife decided to go into rescue work helping “fallen” women in the red-light district of Waco.
Upchurch claimed to have been inspired to start a home for erring girls due to two experiences in his life. The first happened when he was twelve. He claimed to have witnessed the arrest of a prostitute. He saw the fear in her face and thought it to be a terrible injustice that she was arrested but her clients were not. The second incident happened when he worked at a mission in Waco in the red-light district as a preacher. He claimed to see a woman peering out of a window of a brothel and that the look on her face shook him to the core. He and his wife preached in the district to help sway girls away from a life of prostitution. He soon realized a more effective method to help this problem would be to provide these women with a place to live without cost. There, he could teach them marketable skills such as sewing, cooking, or secretarial skills so they could have a means of livelihood. Then they could truly leave the life of prostitution behind them. He tried to start a home of this kind in Waco, but it closed after a year due to the disapproval of residents. He started looking at Arlington as a potential site for the home and purchased land in 1901 to start building the there.
Upchurch would be a somewhat controversial figure today. He displayed some very liberal views for his time. He demanded accountability for those who sexually assaulted women. He spoke out about the societal double standards regarding how society treated unwed mothers vs. those who had impregnated them. Upchurch stated that “it was unfair to deal with two sinners so differently as to send one to Congress and one to perdition.” He was remembered by his daughter Allie Wiese as saying that there “were no illegitimate children, only illegitimate parents.”
For all his liberal views, he could also be very strict in enforcing conservative religious rules that his residents had to follow if they wished to stay at the home. The rules included no drinking of tea or coffee, no eating pork, and no phone calls or leisure activities on Sunday, as well as church attendance weekly, and modest dress. Another rule that was strictly enforced was that he did not allow the residents to put up their children for adoption. This was uncommon for its time, as many rescue homes such as Florence Crittenton Home and the Gladney Homes espoused the philosophy that the women should give up the child for adoption shortly after birth and move on with their lives. Upchurch disagreed, believing it beneficial to the child that the birth mother raise them. He believed in this so strongly that he left the Methodist denomination when they disagreed over the philosophy and became part of the Church of Nazarene. While this rule was in some ways a compassionate approach, the hardline stance disregarded the women’s choice to decide if they wanted to undertake single parenting in a society that judged unwed mothers and their children very harshly.
The home started small, with just seven acres of land. Over its thirty-two years of operation, this grew to seventy-seven acres (an inexact number that remains in dispute) that held multiple dormitories, a tabernacle, a nursery, a medical unit, a school, and a printing press/administration office (the location of where Upchurch’s newsletter, “The Purity Journal,” was produced). The site also held Upchurch’s personal prayer chapel, built with funds raised by the residents in 1920. It was located right next to the cemetery, across from the creek.
Alpha was the first girl to be admitted to the home, though we do not know whether she stayed there. Upchurch claimed that seventy-five percent of the girls who came to the home were “redeemed,” though a look through the faded logbooks of the home seem to indicate otherwise. The books are disorganized and often contradict themselves. They contain unfinished entries and haphazard handwritten notes beside certain names to indicate whether a girl was “saved,” if she ran away from the home or was collected by a relative. Many of the entries also listed the reasons for admission to the home, which went far beyond prostitution: spousal abandonment, incest, sexual assault. The only thing that was clear from the logbook was that this was a place a woman went only if she had run out of options. Survival was likely these women’s first concern, being saved was secondary.
Upchurch, as mentioned earlier, did not allow the girls to drink caffeine of any kind. An archaeological dig was conducted on the Berachah Cemetery Site in 2003 and 2004 by UTA archeology students. Cody Davis, a UTA masters student, wrote about the history of the cemetery and the results of the dig in his 2009 thesis on Berachah Home. One of the items they found during the dig struck me as interesting: they had found a period-appropriate Dr. Pepper bottle buried in the dirt near the cemetery. While this was perhaps trash washed up stream by the creek, or an item a worker or visitor brought to the site, I prefer to think of it differently. It was a symbol of defiance. I like to imagine the girls defied this rule.
I pictured them walking together in a group. The long white dresses the home requires them to wear fall to their ankles, but they walk like they aren’t hindered by this at all. Besides, the dresses are helpful. They are giggling at the irony of this, hiding the Dr. Peppers they stole from the staff in the folds of their clothes. They stop at the edge of the creek near the cemetery. They post one girl as a lookout by the small prayer chapel. They don’t want the Reverend spotting them. They pull up their dresses to their knees. They pull their hair down from the buns they are required to wear, and let it fall down their backs. They put their ankles in the cool water of the creek. They pop open the bottles and drink, the sweet taste of the soda lingering on their tongues. It is a relief from the oppressive heat of the Texas summer. They smile. They talk about a lot of things. They talk about the men they might be infatuated with, their families, games they enjoy, songs they like to sing, their love of summer but their hope for an early fall. They are happy here, in this small moment they took for themselves. They are not erring now. They are in this moment only themselves, and that is all that matters to them.
This picture entered my mind in my most difficult moment, the moment where I was sitting alone in the dark cemetery, begging whatever God that would listen to me to let me die. In that moment, suddenly, the spirit of defiance (perhaps sent down to me from my imaginary Dr. Pepper drinking women) came over me. I couldn’t forget my assault and how it affected me, even though I had tried. It was time to handle it. I needed to relive what happened in a green Coleman tent in a campground just outside Austin, TX, a thousand times if I had to. I had to remember the details: the man grabbing my arm to pull me into his tent, the way his eyes glinted with lust as I told him “no, no no!” the noise of my vomit hitting the toilet wall as I threw up in a blue porta potty afterwards, the only lighting as a witness to my pain a string of green raver lights. I needed to scream, to cry, to say the words, “I was raped” aloud before I could fully recover and move on. The grass knew it, the trees knew it, the children and girls buried here so long ago knew it, just as well as I did.
A friend found me in the cemetery not long afterwards. I had texted him a suicide note, and he knew I often went to this site when I was distressed about something. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him or anyone else what was going on yet: that I was raped and couldn’t handle it, that it hurt so goddamn badly that I felt only the ghosts of women from another era could understand what I was going through. It was only a matter of time though. The women urged me forward in their own way, telling me to tell the world, to not let myself be forgotten.
I eventually started therapy and made some small progress. I thanked the women of Berachah for this in small ways. I’d leave them gifts, small trinkets I found at dollar stores, Asian candy meant for the celebration of Chinese New Year, poetry torn from my favorite books. I started to notice with repeated visits I was not the only one who left these offerings. Around Mother’s Day, I noticed someone had placed a single yellow rose on each of the marked graves. Another time, I came by the cemetery to see some small toy cars placed there. It was comforting in my isolation to know that the place and these women spoke to other people too.
Berachah Home closed in 1935. The reason for the closure is not entirely clear, though Dallas Morning News articles from the time attributed it to failing finances (possibly due to the Great Depression). Upchurch’s daughter and son-in-law Allie and Frank Wiese took over the site. They opened an orphanage there, called Berachah Junior Kingdom. The Wiese’s did not allow the children who lived there to be adopted. Instead, the children lived and were educated on the grounds. Beyond that, not much is known about the operation of the orphanage. Hardly any documentation of it remains. The orphanage closed for unknown reasons in 1942. Some people speculate the closure was because of a court case the local school district brought against Upchurch around the time the orphanage closed. They claimed he did not pay the appropriate back taxes to them during the operation of Berachah Home. The case resolved in Upchurch’s favor in 1942. After the case was resolved, the Wiese’s and Upchurch sold the home to the Southwestern Missionary Alliance, a Nazarene organization. The Alliance used some of the land for religious conferences and events. The rest of it they sold to a contractor that built the College Hill subdivision on the land, a neighborhood that still stands today. Eventually the Alliance land was sold to UTA. They demolished most of the remaining buildings of Berachah Home that were still standing in the 1960s. UTA used the land to build student housing and Doug Russell Park.
The cemetery was often the site of vandalism through the 1950s-1970s. University students enjoyed partying and drinking in the small chapel that once stood adjacent to the cemetery. The woods were overgrown, and the cemetery was hidden from view, perfect for a wild party. It was a strange fate for a place that was once intended to be a haven where wayward women could go to repent of their sins.
The university students often destroyed or simply stole grave markers as souvenirs of their parties there. Tired of managing the vandalism to the site, the university administration demolished the chapel sometime in the 1970s. All that remains on the site today are some brick paths in the woods, half buried by dirt, the foundation of the chapel and a printing press, and the cemetery.
The cemetery doesn’t call me like it once did in the years I struggled with my assault. During therapy, I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Recovery has taken a long time. In some ways, I am still recovering and may be for my whole life. I’m at peace with that now. That is its own kind of salvation.
I visited the cemetery recently. It was a visit to mark my progress after my suicide attempt five years earlier and acknowledge the importance of this site in my recovery. I stood quietly in the spring breeze. The sounds of the water from the creek nearby slowly tumbling over the rocks and the hum of the birds in the trees brought me joy. I looked at headstones, all the names of the children: Lura Mae, Etta, George, Mary, Bryce. I don’t think of them. I think of my sisters who once lived here, grew here, perhaps even found their own kind of salvation here, whether through God or themselves. I saw the life in this place and in them. We were not in error, we were not sinners, but blessings, echoing the name Upchurch choose for this place. I reached out my hand to the women who once lived here, now at home somewhere in the ethereal blue sky beyond this place. I promised them this: I have not forgotten them.
Hannah Searsy is an essayist and poet based in Fort Worth, TX. She lives with her partner Luc and her two Siamese cats, Mojo and Scrambles. She writes essays and poems about mental health, abandoned cemeteries, and laundromats.