The Curious Case of Sand Branch

Richard Sharum

2018 - Ongoing

Only 15 miles southeast of downtown Dallas, Texas sits a small ex-Freedman's town named Sand Branch. Founded in the 1880's by former slaves it is a remnant of the past still grasping for recognition and basic rights. For decades the residents have survived without clean running water, sewage or trash services. There are also no emergency services, schools or grocery stores. Situated in Dallas County, it has been denied incorporation for decades due to the steep fees associated with that process. Dallas city government has also refused to annex the town. Sand Branch currently has a population of 60 remaining, with 5 children residing.

As a result of the lack of running water, residents are forced to drink, cook and bathe with either donated bottled water or groundwater from poorly dug wells. Recently the well water has been tested to be highly toxic and laden with heavy metals. All residents are below the poverty line, living mainly on government assistance and poorly kept livestock. There is no public transportation nearby, and most do not have their own, so commuting for work is not an option. Of the remaining citizens, 75% of them are over the age of 65. County officials prohibit any existing structure repairs or new construction, due to the claim that Sand Branch sits in a flood zone, forcing the population to use dilapidated housing in extreme weather. The town sits next to the Trinity River but has never been flooded (according to records) since it was founded over a hundred years ago. Many other parts of Dallas find themselves underwater and in constant danger of flash flooding anytime it rains more than 2 inches. There are no similar construction restrictions on those areas of the county.

Stoking additional fears, Dallas constructed a wastewater plant on the border of town in 1967. It has openly admitted that part of their process requires dumping waste solids (known as sludge cake) into the ground after extracting all water from the waste. There is belief by some town advocates that this is partly to blame for the contaminated groundwater. The city denies all wrongdoing and the plant remains in operation today. In addition, surrounding industries have been caught dumping illegally within town limits, prompting county officials to install cameras on the perimeter to try and catch perpetrators. Tire dumping is common there which has also been suspected in ground contamination.

The fight for clean water went into overdrive around five years ago when Eugene Keahey was installed as the preacher at the town’s last remaining church. He organized food and water donations and established a commission for water rights using the help of pro-bono attorneys in Dallas. In 2019, Pastor Keahey died tragically in a house fire, along with his wife and 15 year old daughter. As a result of this devastating loss, the commission has been even more vigilant in pressing for the rights of Sand Branch citizens. This project started in October of 2018 and continues today.

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  • A man holds a watermelon given to him by a local food bank. 2018.

  • SInce there is no running water in Sand Branch, some residents have dug homemade wells in order to get it. This groundwater has been tested to be highly toxic and laden with heavy metals such as lead and mercury. 2018.

  • Home of a Veteran. Many of the residents live in dilapidated and damaged homes, constructed with materials found instead of bought. They are allowed to repair a structure by the county, but due to the FEMA Flood Zone classification, they are not allowed to build anything new. 2018.

  • A pig is slaughtered by a group of Vietnamese men for a birthday party. Selling livestock is one of the ways residents of Sand Branch make income. They sell pigs, horses, and cows for cheap. 2018.

  • “People” stands in front of his bathroom. Like other residents, he must use toxic groundwater to bathe with. 2018.

  • Ms. Betty leans on a garden hoe to rest from weeding in her front yard. 2018.

  • Death of “Dirt”, a long time resident. 2018.

  • A group of young men, whose family pays to keep their horses in Sand Branch, come twice a week to ride their horses. They practice so that they can compete in local rodeos. Although they are not residents of the community, they are treated as such. 2019.

  • Dogs bark at the photographer as he steps into their territory. Some residents have brought non-running campers to Sand Branch and live in them, often with pets. 2019.

  • A woman with her three new puppies. 2019.

  • A woman who grew up in Sand Branch but has since moved away. Many former residents who were raised here return regularly to be with their friends. 2020.

  • Dusk. Two former residents who grew up in Sand Branch return for drinks and conversation after work. They are among others who return to their childhood community to check on and take care of the remaining residents there. 2018.

  • Broken Rib. Healthcare is nearly absent for the residents here, with most ailments going undiagnosed. 2020.

  • Abandoned Boat. Illegal trash dumping is a problem in Sand Branch, and with there being no trash services as an unincorporated community, it usually stays there for years. 2020.

  • After a rainstorm. 2019.

  • Two residents discuss the recent attempts by a group of pro bono attorneys to sue Dallas County to bring water access to Sand Branch. 2019.

  • Puppy with a broken leg. 2020.

  • A man burns a horse carcass that was dumped in the community overnight. 2019.

  • “People” in his house. 2020.

  • A young girl smells a flower on Bunche Street. She is one of six children that live in Sand Branch. 2019.