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Family fighting for the future of a historic Black church in Addison

Family fighting for the future of a historic Black church in Addison
Family fighting for the future of a historic Black church in Addison 04:16

ADDISON ( — A historic Black church in North Texas seeking to continue its nearly 140-year legacy is facing opposition from both neighbors and city officials. 

White Rock Chapel is in the southeast corner of Addison on Celestial Road, close to where the Dallas North Tollway intersects with Belt Line Road. 

The small white church, designated a historic site by the Texas Historical Commission, is now surrounded on all sides by multi-million-dollar homes. 

"This neighborhood has grown up around this church that has been, at least in the area, going on now almost 150 years," said owner Donald Wesson. "This is a place that in the African-American community is literally hallowed ground." 

White Rock Chapel was founded by five formerly enslaved families in 1865. 

"They committed that they would work together to earn money to buy land for a church," he said. "Took them 19 years. In 1884, they went back to a man who had enslaved them, and he agreed to sell them the land, which is a really unusual decision for the time."

The plantation owner not only helped them build the first church, but often worshipped alongside them. 

Floods forced the congregation to relocate to nearby land, the current property, in 1918. Storms destroyed the new building and fire the next, but still, they persevered. 

"So this church has operated on this lot since 1918 and has continued to meet as a church up until the time we purchased it in August of 2018," said Wesson. 

He and his family wanted to keep the history alive and build on White Rock Chapel's legacy as spiritual gathering place.

"We thought the neighborhood and even the town would say, 'Hallelujah. How can we help you?'" Wesson said. "The response was exactly the opposite." 

When the Wessons gutted the inside of the church to begin remodeling, they applied for permits from the town. That process started a two-year battle with neighbors who oppose their plans. 

"We had a small quiet Black church that all of the neighbors embraced," neighbor Howard Freed wrote in a statement to CBS News Texas. "We would all be happy to support that again. The Wessons have visions of grandeur for this site which would disrupt our neighborhood and probably hurt our property values…We do not want an active church or any commercial entity in the middle of our neighborhood." 

Freed and other homeowners cited traffic and safety concerns, given there are only two entrances in and out of the neighborhood. 

Close to 100 neighbors signed a petition against the church's special use permit, which triggered a provision requiring a supermajority of the town council to approve it. 

"They fell one vote shy of that," said Jeremy Dys, an attorney with the First Liberty Institute, a legal organization dedicated to defending religious liberty. 

Dys says White Rock Chapel is now unable to operate. He and his team are prepared to fight for the church's right to exercise religious freedom, and they sent a demand letter to the town this week. 

"If we have to go to court, we will be successful in keeping them here for another hundred years," Dys said. "Here we are in 2023 America, where we have neighbors saying, 'We don't want a church in our backyard, especially if it's that African-American church that's across the way from my mansion.' That's wrong and it needs to stop." 

Both Dys and Wesson are hopeful they can all find a way to move forward. 

"I can't emphasize enough that we very much want to be good neighbors," Wesson said. 

White Rock Chapel's congregation set the example, when descendants of men and women who were enslaved came together with those who enslaved them. 

"Our vision for the church was and remains to build on that historic legacy of reconciliation, and to allow—not just Addison, but the State of Texas and the nation—to know and lift up this history," said Wesson. 

The town of Addison released the following statement on the latest developments with the church: 

"The Town of Addison has been a longtime supporter of the White Rock Chapel and we appreciate the Wessons' passion for its revival. As part of the zoning process, the Town notifies owners within 200 feet of the property under discussion. When more than 20 percent of those notified file a written protest with the Town, as was the case with the White Rock Chapel, the request needs to be approved by a three-fourths vote of the Council. This is considered a supermajority vote that requires approval by six out of seven members. The Addison City Council was not able to reach the supermajority approval needed for the proposed zoning request to pass in its current form. However, Council did vote to waive the one-year waiting period for refiling which allows the Wessons the opportunity to bring forward a new request at any time." 

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