CREEPY CORNER: The Black Hope Ghosts — Truth, Legend, Or the Sad Story of a Forgotten Cemetery?

Did the residents of Black Hope Cemetery get their comeuppance? Or are they still waiting?
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Louise Hung
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Did the residents of Black Hope Cemetery get their comeuppance? Or are they still waiting?

Y'all I worked HARD for this Creepy Corner. 

I had to take to the YouTube to rewatch one of my favorite horror movies from childhood. Yup, I had snuggle into my couch on a chilly afternoon, drink tea, and watch a cheesy (and a little bizarre), "based on a true story" movie about ghosts in Texas – for RESEARCH. My job is harder than yours. 

What movie might I be referring to? None other than the TV movie, Grave Secrets: The Legacy of Hilltop Drive starring the incomparable Patty Duke. If you too were a spooky little child of the '90s, you might also have watched it. 

When I saw it on its original air date in 1992, I was shocked and delighted that SUCH THINGS COULD BE PUT ON TV?!? One scene, where the shadow of a ghost-man crept across Patty Duke's door, scared the ever-loving shit out of me. It also THRILLED me. I was so happy and so spooked and also that was the first night that I can honestly remember being afraid of the dark. I'm still mostly afraid of the dark. Thanks, Patty Duke. 

movie shadow

I dreaded this sight for all of my childhood. I still dread it. 

(No, but really, thank you Patty Duke. This was one of the first horror movies I saw, and remains one of the few, where the female protagonist takes matters into her own hands and spearheads all the shit that needs to get done with relatively little "you're crazy!" from the men-folk. Duke's portrayal of the real-life Jean Williams was determined and tough, but also the emotional core of the story. Just ignore the hokey dialogue and some of the weird directorial choices.)

Every now and then Hilltop Drive pops into my head, and I wonder how true the "based on a true story" movie actually is. So this time I decided to do a little digging into the actual Texas suburb that the movie takes place in. 

What I came up with is sad, chilling, and tragic in its own right – though the hard truth behind all the alleged ghosty stuff is hard to discern. To me, it seems like a swirling mix of history, actual events, tall tales, and good old-fashioned THIS IS EFFED UP. 

I suspect that most of the creepy manifestations were played up in the movie, even in the book that the movie was based on, The Black Hope Horror by Ben Williams, Jean Williams, and John Bruce Shoemaker. Whatever the truth may be, it all makes for a compelling story about American history and how we treat our dead. 

Here are the facts about the suburb in Crosby, Texas, to the best of my knowledge. If you know better than I do, or if you live in the area please speak up in the comments! 

Oh, and if you want to watch the Patty Duke movie, click here. The whole thing is on YouTube. It might be a great distraction from your family's Thanksgiving shenanigans. 

It all started with the McKinney family. 

In the 1800s, the family owned a plantation in Texas, as well as the slaves who worked the plantation. When slavery ended in Texas, around 1865 (I say "around" because Texas slaves were not actually freed in a timely manner – if that had been the case they would have been freed in 1863), the McKinney family gave a portion of their land to their freed slaves. That portion of land became known as Black Hope, part of which was located in what is now known as the Houston suburb of Crosby. 

The McKinney's freed slaves built a community on that piece of land that included a church, a school, homes, and a cemetery. It seems that the Black Hope community continued on for decades, until it was destroyed by fire. The descendants of those freed slaves continue to live on in nearby Barrett Station.

Multiple sources say that the last burial in Black Hope Cemetery took place in 1939, and that over 60 individuals were interred in the cemetery. 

As is the case with many African American cemeteries in American history, the cemetery (comprised of graves only marked with wooden crosses, simple headstones, or no maker at all) was not marked or preserved. 

The descendants of the McKinney family held onto the majority of the land until the 1970s, when it was sold to developers eager to cash-in on folks wanting to lead a suburban life outside of Houston. The Newport subdivision of Crosby, Texas was born. 

In 1980 people starting buying land in the Newport subdivision on which to build homes – among those people were Ben and Jean Williams. They chose to build on Poppets Way, in what is section 8 of Newport. 

Section 8 sits right atop what was once Black Hope Cemetery. 

Of course, Jean and Ben didn't know that when they moved into the shiny, new suburb, and neither did their neighbors. 

This is where fact and fiction begins to blur. 

It is unclear whether or not the developers knew there was a cemetery on the premises. Some say that the McKinney family descendants did not disclose, others say that the developers knew and even "bulldozed several wooden crosses and a picket fence during the early stages of development." There's also the likely case that public record of Black Hope Cemetery was lost due to poor record keeping or destruction of records. 

Whatever happened, Black Hope Cemetery was never moved. 

According to urban legend, the book, the movie, and the odd ghost hunter, weird things started happening in section 8 almost immediately after folks moved in. Supposedly the Williamses saw shadow people in their home (look away Patty Duke!), had strange electrical malfunctions like the TV turning on by itself, their pets died mysteriously, the toilet flushed by itself, family members became mentally or physically ill in the house, the house was always frigid, and disembodied voices and footsteps were heard. 

According to some sources, the streetlamp in front of the Williams' house would blink in answer to their granddaughter's questions. 

Allegedly the Williams' neighbors, the Haneys, were having the same kinds of problems. In fact, so were all the residents of section 8 (allegedly). 

As you can imagine, stuff like this is hard to confirm. Going by most sources, all the current residents of Newport's section 8 do not report strange phenomena. There's tell of a high turnover in the neighborhood, and the authorities having to check on empty houses that trigger false alarms or strange lights (more likely youths than ghosts), but aside from the occasional stories that pop up, the Newport ghosts have pretty much left the neighborhood. 

Anyway, what does seem to be true is that when the Haneys decided to dig a pool in their backyard they found two bodies, buried in what appeared to be graves. Some accounts say an elderly black man warned them that there were bodies buried in their backyard, and even showed them exactly where. But that "fact" seems to be neither here nor there. 

That man seems too convenient to me, too "magical negro". However, what does seem to be true is that many of the citizens of nearby Barrett Station know about Black Hope Cemetery, either from family or from the community. As of the 1980s and '90s there were still living community members of Barrett Station who had family members buried in the section of Black Hope Cemetery under Newport – one elderly gentleman even remembered burying people there. 

Regardless of whether the Haneys were warned or not, they did in fact find two bodies, in two graves buried in their backyard. Again, I can't quite confirm this, but the graves were supposedly those of Charlie and Betty Thomas. Mr. and Mrs. Thomas were buried in Black Hope Cemetery c. 1929. 

Once the bodies were found in the Haney's backyard, that's when the investigation as to why there were bodies — long-dead bodies — in a brand new subdivision, began. The Haneys sued the developer for not disclosing that they were living on top of a cemetery, then the developer countersued. After a long court battle, the Haneys were eventually filed bankruptcy. They no longer live in Newport. 

Some sources say that the Williamses also found what were probably graves in their backyard — indentations in the earth that looked eerily like cemetery plots. Some say that the giant tree in their yard was actually the center of Black Hope Cemetery and that buried below the tree were two sisters. I'm having a hard time confirming or denying any of the above. 

What I can say is that the Williamses had their hands tied. There seemed to be nothing but proof pointing to the existence of Black Hope Cemetery being underneath their neighborhood, but the title company would not support this claim, saying there was no way to prove it. Furthermore, the Ben and Jean could not legally dig for bodies on their property because it was (supposedly) illegal to disturb interred remains.

I don't know if all this legal talk is true, but this is the best I can deduce. Does anybody know better than me? Contrary to popular belief, I am not a lawyer at law. 

Adding insult to injury Jean and Ben's daughter passed away while this was all going on. This was more than they could take. Distraught, the two decided to leave Texas for Montana. They apparently lost their life savings fleeing Newport.

I don't believe that the dead buried in Black Hope Cemetery were ever moved. A couple sites I came upon say the bodies were relocated, but if so, where? I can't find it. I can't even find where Charlie and Betty Thomas' final resting place came to be – if that was actually them buried on the Haney's property. 

And as for the rumors that Newport and Poppets Way is now "abandoned", that couldn't be farther from the truth. A glance at Poppets Way on Google Maps or the Newport website shows that the community seems pretty normal for suburban Texas. 

Ghosts aside, what to me is truly disturbing is the fate of Black Hope Cemetery. Like so many historic black cemeteries in America, the powers that be just didn't seem to care what happened to it. It also troubles me that the disrespect to the dead of Black Hope Cemetery became secondary to some creepy-but-flimsy ghost stories. Every website I visited salivated over the SPOOKY STORIES, treating the dead of Black Hope as only plot points.

True, the ghost stories are what drew me to Black Hope Cemetery, but I wonder if anybody is working to move the graves of Black Hope? 

Again, I'm not sure. In 2007 the Houston Chronicle did a story about the neighborhood and they briefly mentioned an organization called Respect Houston that would relocate the Black Hope graves. Many of Crosby residents seemed to want to give the deceased Black Hope residents a respectful end. I have an email out to the group that was working to move the cemetery in 2007, I'll let you know if they respond. 

So there you go. A very human core to a rather complicated ghost story. I suppose you can see why young Louise was so drawn to the story of Newport. 

But now grown-up Louise wants to know more about Black Hope Cemetery. Did the deceased residents ever get justice? Do any of you know anything? Have connections to preservation organizations out there? Know more facts about the Crosby area? Speak up if you do! 

I'd love to have an update on the state of Black Hope Cemetery.