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North Texas church founded by former slaves moves closer to building upon 140-year legacy

Historic White Rock Chapel closer to building upon 140-year legacy
Historic White Rock Chapel closer to building upon 140-year legacy 03:33

ADDISON - A North Texas church founded by former slaves after the Civil War is one step closer to being able to build upon its 140-year legacy.

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.

It's been years since the chapel has held a church service, held up by opposition from city leaders and its neighbors.

The small white church designated a historic site by the Texas Historical Commission, is now surrounded by multi-million-dollar homes who fought to keep the chapel from reopening its doors since it was purchased by new owners in 2018.

In December, the Addison town council finally approved its request to operate as a church, as it has been for more than a century.

"So we're excited about what's going to happen going forward," said Dr. Donald Wesson, who now owns the property.

He says preserving the incredible history of White Rock Chapel has been worth the fight.

"In 1865, at the end of slavery in Texas, five formerly enslaved families decided that they were going to work together to earn money to buy land for a church," Dr. Wesson said.

It took them 19 years to come up with the funds. Then, they had to go to the man who had previously enslaved them to ask him to sell them the land. Surprisingly, they agreed.

"The second amazing part of that story is he helped them build the church," said Dr. Wesson.

Not only that, the white plantation owner and his family often worshipped there, alongside the founders.

"We can't think of a better American story for reconciliation, and so that was the motivation for us to step in and buy the property to prevent it from being destroyed," Dr. Wesson said.

Floods forced the congregation to relocate a few hundred yards away, on the current property, in 1918. Storms destroyed the new building and fire the next.

Dr. Wesson and his family were determined not to let the current chapel be bulldozed.

"The idea that those disparate communities were able to come together 140 years ago to start this church, we want to build upon that legacy," he said.

When the Wessons gutted the inside of the church to begin remodeling, they applied for permits from the Town of Addison – not knowing it would spark a years-long battle with neighbors who oppose their plans, citing concerns about traffic, safety, noise and their property values.

Last summer, the town council initially denied the Wessons' zoning request to operate as a church.

"Churches serve a critical role in our communities, and we have to think long and hard before we create problems for them to exist in a town or community," said Jeremy Dys, special counsel with First Liberty Institute, who stepped in to help protect the church's religious freedom.

When the town council took up the zoning request again last December, it was approved unanimously.

"It was another example, frankly, of how God has protected and supported this land all along," Dr. Wesson said.

The Wessons are still waiting on the necessary permits to continue the repairs inside the chapel, build and outdoor pavilion, and pave the parking lot.

Contrary to persistent rumors in the neighborhood, they have no plans to expand the footprint of the existing buildings on the property.

"We believe that we're going to have a small, in-person presence and as things grow, a larger virtual presence," said Dr. Wesson.

Once they get through the red tape, they can't wait to serve as a spiritual gathering place once again.

Keeping the history alive has never been more important. Through this process, Dr. Wesson says he heard from neighbors who didn't believe slavery happened here.

"I think there was a reticence amongst the neighbors to have a history that they, for whatever reason, considered an undesirable history that they either wanted to erase or forget," he said. "But from our standpoint, that's a rich American history that I would think not only would Americans be proud of, but the town of Addison would be proud of it."

The descendants of men and women who were enslaved, coming together with those who enslaved them, provides hope for what could happen next.

"Perhaps these neighbors will come and put a layer of paint on the wall or trim these trees around the building," Dys said. "We can put behind us all the rancor we've been through the past couple years."

They will need continued support to make sure the doors of White Rock Chapel stay open for another 140 years.

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