WHITE OAK — A family whose roots spread from the days of slavery into the woods near present-day White Oak has high aspirations for the land their patriarch was deeded from his one-time master.
"This is Butcher Christian," Debra Christian said, leaning over a stone marker at the back corner of a three-acre cemetery along Shiloh Road. "He's my great-great-grandfather. He was born in 1836, and he died in 1903."
Christian lives in Tyler, where her nonprofit agency Christian Restoration Community Residential has helped eight veterans find housing.
She and others in her Christian-Jones clan hope to bring that independence to homeless veterans on their Gregg County home ground — 665 acres that antebellum farmer (and slave holder) Gideon S. Christian gave to their patriarch.
"We are ready to put our homes right here on this 14 acres," she said, gesturing toward treetops that were mere feet above eye level due to the sloping land. "We have to level everything off.
However, Christian said, the historic graveyard will remain.
"We're going to keep our cemetery, because that's our heritage," she said. "We want the town (of White Oak) to know we've got good things coming up."
The Christian-Jones clan now lives primarily in Tyler but has ties to the homeless population in Longview. Christian's late brother, the Rev. Antonio Christian, ministered at Hiway 80 Rescue Mission.
"He was a neat, neat guy," Hiway 80 Executive Director Eric Burger said. "We miss Antonio."
Christian said her brother began driving sandwich meals from Hiway 80 to Tyler, where he would feed homeless people who gathered below the Glenwood Boulevard bridge. That's where the Christians met homeless veterans who would inspire the nonprofit agency they started in 2007.
"There is a history of her doing things for veterans," Burger said. "I've visited what they have in Tyler and seen what she does with the homeless vets."
Back at Shiloh Road, the cemetery is just a bowshot from Shiloh School, once a one-room classroom where recently freed slaves learned.
A roofless shell of ancient, red bricks — with a state historical marker out front — is all that's left of the two-room school that replaced the first building in 1920. The old, wooden gymnasium is still there.
Christian's cousin, Darnell Jones, went to school there.
"Back when Kennedy got shot, this is where we got the news," he said.
Christian said the family is working with the Gregg County Historical Commission to secure a second marker for the site.
A former Goodyear shop manager, Debra Christian is commander of the Disabled American Veteran Auxiliary, Unit 5, Woodrow Wilson unit in Tyler.
Her brother, Randall Christian Jr., and father, Randall Sr., served in the military.
"We'll take pieces at a time, but we do have this 14 acres all ready to go," she said, referring in part to a long-running family battle on nearby tracks with an oilman that on March 2 became a district court lawsuit filed by Christian.
Standing near her great-great-grandfather's grave, Christian envisioned the homes she hopes to see built through a USDA home loan program.
"We can do low, very low-income families and get them into a 30-year loan," she added.
She believes Butcher Christian will see them, too.
"I think he'd be smiling down," she said. "You know he would, especially with my father being a Korean War veteran."