EL PASO, Texas (Destination Texas) — The legacy of the Borderland is built on immigration. That rich history comes to life at an El Paso resting place: Concordia Cemetery.
The ranch-cum-cemetery in Central El Paso is home to more than 60,000 “residents,” and is located on 52-acres of dusty land a stone’s throw from I-10 and not too far from the Mexican border.
Concordia Cemetary is a memento mori that is as grand as it is ghostly, and lies in the middle of a city known for travelers just passing through, but whose stories are eternal.
Among those buried in Concordia are masons, children, Jewish and Catholic people, Black people, Chinese immigrants, families and paupers.
Concordia — which takes its name from the Roman goddess of harmony — is a microcosm of the tall tales that inspire intrigue into the Wild West, but also speaks volumes to the country’s complicated history of immigration, race relations and pandemic preparedness.
“People are fascinated by the history,” said Bernie Sargent, a historical consultant in El Paso. “And they continue to learn by it and not replicate it, but learn it and say, ‘I’m not going to be that way — that was wrong — but I want to learn more about it.’”
The graveyard has survived wars, pandemics and the massive growth that occurred in city in the 1860s after the railroad made its way through town.
“How it survived freeways, how it survived vandalism — it doesn’t want to leave,” marveled Melissa Sargent, a board member of the Concordia Heritage Association and who is married to Bernie.
“It doesn’t change in the sense of topography, but the happenings around it continue, but it stays steady,” she said.
What has been a constant are the stories that are told from beyond the grave — like the story of Lady Flo.
According to the late Dr. Maceo Daley, a former UTEP history professor and director of African-American Studies, Florida J. Wolfe — “Lady Flo” — was one of the most glamorous and resilient Black women to live in El Paso.
Wolfe was the love and common-law wife of Lord Delaval James Beresford of Ireland, who owned cotton plantations and cattle ranches across Canada, the Southwest region of the U.S. and Mexico.
Although no one knows precisely how Lady Flo came to El Paso, her legacy makes clear that once she was in El Paso, people on both sides of the border knew the beautiful woman had arrived.
In Daley’s history of Lady Flo, he writes that the socialite flaunted tradition and made an impression on people in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. Lady Flo and Lord Beresford made a home in Mexico because interracial marriage and cohabitation was illegal in Texas during the late 19th Century.
Lady Flo was known for giving grand parties and made generous contributions to the El Paso police and fire departments. she also developed a keen sense for business.
After Lord Beresford’s death in 1906, Lady Flo sought to claim his property, but the claim was contested because she was Black. Lady Flo spent the rest of her days in El Paso and remains remembered for her philanthropy and influence on promoting racial diversity in the region.
Concordia Cemetery also houses the remains of many Buffalo Soldiers, members of the 10th Cavalry Regiment of the U.S. Army who fought in the American Indian Wars for the U.S.
The Buffalo Soldiers were Black Cavalry members, and were given their nickname by the indigenous tribes they fought against.
“It’s a montage of cultures, creeds and races,” said Bernie.
“We have two Jewish sections, we have a Catholic section — citizen Catholic and non-citizen Catholic — and we have the Chinese section, too,” he continued.
The Chinese diaspora reached El Paso in the early 1880s, just before the Southern Union Pacific Railroad was completed in 1881. The earliest overseas Chinese immigrants in El Paso owned successful businesses that included a boarding house and grocery store. But growth of Chinese communities in the U.S. were stymied due to xenophobic immigration policies.
The Chinese Exclusion Act that was passed in 1882 set a 10-year absolute moratorium on Chinese labor immigration, and was the first time the U.S. government outlawed entry to an ethnic group based on the belief it posed a threat “to the good order of certain localities.”
During the 20th Century, Chinese immigrants made their way to El Paso by way of Mexico after General John “Black Jack” Pershing petitioned Congress to allow them into the region to escape racial violence that was occurring during the Mexican Revolution.
The Chinese community in El Paso was one of the largest in Texas at the time and contributed to bolstering the local economy by growing and selling produce and by opening laundries and restaurants.
As the Chinese community established a new presence in West Texas, they were also able to maintain many cultural traditions.
“The process of the Chinese funeral took usually a week or two of celebrations, and they would come and burn incense so people could leave their blessings,” said Melissa. “They’d burn pieces of paper that were written with blessings that would go with them to heaven.”
Not all of the souls resting at Concordia Cemetery are remembered for their positive contributions to El Paso society.
Outlaw John Wesley Hardin is one of them.
“John is the most visited person — and perhaps in all of El Paso. People come from all over the world because of his notoriety as a bad man,” Bernie said.
While some — such as Bob Dylan, who wrote a song and album using Hardin’s namesake in 1967 — think of Hardin as a Robin Hood-type figure of the Southwest, others remember him as a regular old outlaw who once had a showdown with Wild Bill Hickok, among other dangerous encounters.
“I mean, he killed more than 40 people — not something you want to brag about — but it brings notoriety,” said Bernie. “He also became a lawyer when he got out of jail and a minister — kind of an oxymoron — but we’re proud to have had him in El Paso.”
The Sargents say the cemetery serves as a walkable reminder to the living that teaches the history of El Paso, one grave stone at a time.
Among the thousands of markers are ornate gravestones with the names of loved ones carved into smooth stone, rows of small wooden crosses that pepper the grounds like fields of daisies and sandstone indicators whose messages have long been washed away by time, but are still commemorated with delicate silk flowers meant to immortalize their memory.
While Concordia Cemetery does not consider itself a site for supernatural activity, there have been some reports of paranormal activity — particularly among the children’s section.
Bernie said there were a great number of child victims of the Spanish Flu pandemic in El Paso almost a century ago, and visitors have reported feeling their presence when the spirits feel disturbed.
According to Bernie, “the folks from the community services organizations came in and decided to trim all the trees. Well, the trees are where the spirits play, so they said for months they could hear the children lamenting at night time, the spirits of them, because their trees — their playground — was gone.”
In many ways, Concordia Cemetery is emblematic of the ways in which people, policies and places can change over time. Yet it feels remain remarkably familiar as you escape the cacophony of the city and walk among the coffins and ghosts.