Leaders of a historic Dallas-area church are fighting for the right to rebuild the church on the property it has stood on for nearly 150 years, but are facing resistance from neighbors and the city council.
“Our focus, though, is to bring this historic, spiritual and religious legacy back to life,” church leader Don Wesson told Fox News Digital.
White Rock Chapel in Addison, was founded in 1884 by freed slaves. They worshiped there for 34 years, but the property was subject to frequent floods, being near a creek. In 1918, a White plantation owner who often worshiped with the congregation, donated two acres of his property on higher ground for the church to rebuild.
After enduring more devastating floods and a suspected arson in 1960, the owners of the property are now fighting to restore and preserve the African-American church’s rich legacy. But they have faced an uphill battle against neighbors who believe the church would bring too much traffic into their neighborhood.
“Formerly enslaved people working with their former enslaver not only to buy land for a church, to build the church and then attend the church together,” Wesson said. “I mean, for us, that is a huge legacy on which we intend to build. And our disappointment is that the city’s action is not allowing us to bring this real benefit and blessing to the community.”
Wesson and his wife Wanda bought the property five years ago with the hopes of preserving it as both a historical landmark and restoring it as an active church building. As they worked to get a building permit to do renovations to the building, they started facing pushback from some members of the community.
In July, 20% of the neighboring houses filed a written protest with the town of Addison over the Wesson’s request for a special use permit. The permit request needed a super majority approval from the city council, but it failed by one vote.
Even though neighbors have raised traffic concerns, Wesson says the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission stated that the traffic impact would be “inconsequential” to the surrounding neighborhoods.
The Wessons said they view the legal fight as a “real tragedy” because the neighborhood, state and nation are missing out on the “blessing” the church’s history of reconciliation brings.
Attorney Jeremy Dys of the Texas-based First Liberty Institute, told Fox News Digital that other churches and buildings in the area haven’t been subject to as much opposition as White Rock Chapel has. He is representing the Wessons in their legal battle against the city to preserve the church.
Dys believes the city council has engaged in religious discrimination against the Wessons. First Liberty Institute sent a demand letter to the council this week, asking the city council to approve the permit. The legal group said they will argue the city is violating state and federal protections by denying the permit.
He suggested the concerns raised by neighbors are just a front to not wanting the “small African-American congregation” in their wealthy neighborhood.
“This is a very tony neighborhood. It has houses that are, I’m going to guess, somewhere in the neighborhood of 5- 6000 square feet around them. It is a very wealthy neighborhood. And quite frankly, they simply do not want this small African-American congregation to remain across the street from them,” Dys said.
“That is tragic and just tragic that just a few neighbors can stand in the way of an historic African-American congregation for even existing in the neighborhood,” he continued. “That’s wrong at any time for anyone, but to say in 2023 America, ‘not in my backyard,’ I think is even more despicable.”
In 2000, the Texas Historical Commission also designated the church’s location as a historic site worthy of a Texas State Historical Marker.
“Its legacy is a history of racial reconciliation and understanding during turbulent times in this country during and following the Civil War,” the White Rock Chapel website says.
When reached for comment, the town of Addison said it has been a longtime supporter of White Rock Chapel and is pursuing a resolution with the Wessons.
“The Town of Addison has been a longtime supporter of the White Rock Chapel and we appreciate the Wessons’ passion for its revival,” the statement read.
They explained that through the zoning process, the town notifies owners within 200 feet of the property under discussion, and when 20 percent of those neighbors file a written protest against the zoning permit, the request needs a supermajority vote to approve it.
“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,” the statement continued.
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