Dallas projects itself as a swaggering, self-made city destined for greatness. It proudly proclaims to have no limits, no reason to be and no history. But there is a history hidden in plain sight.
It is hidden because Dallas plowed through the city’s first and largest African American cemetery to build the North Central Expressway in the 1940s. It is hidden because Dallas history books, like Jim Schutze’s The Accommodation, get blocked by publishers at the risk of embarrassing city leadership. Neighborhoods change at warp speed. Historic buildings stand empty and neglected, if they still stand at all.
Stories get buried and replaced with myths of a white male business elite that created a regional economic empire out of nothing. The old white leadership controlled official memory for decades through a combination of the pulpit, news media, school curricula, entertainment, architecture, and urban renewal. But today, academics and curious residents are creating a more accurate history that includes the human costs of Dallas’ development.
Now retired, Don and Jocelyn Pinkard spend their days researching scarcely discussed stories of Dallas’ past for their Hidden History DFW tour. Visitors travel the city to more than 20 historic African American sites before lunch. The Pinkards and their families go back generations in Texas. Having both been raised in Oak Cliff, they have firsthand knowledge of the city and its many transformations. And they are sharing it.
Freedman’s Town to Uptown
This weekend’s tour began at 9 a.m. at the J.B. Jackson DART Center, named after the local community leader who helped negotiate better prices for black homeowners in Fair Park whose homes were being seized through eminent domain.
“We’ve got to travel back in time,” Don said into a megaphone, “but we have to tell the story.”
He pointed the nondescript white van toward the Freedman’s Memorial Cemetery, located in what is now Uptown. Originally a Freedman’s Town, it was settled by former slaves after the Civil War. From the founding of Dallas in 1841 to the 1960s, this was a large, vibrant, and self-sufficient African American community. It was one of the largest in the south. Back then, this was “State Thomas” or “Short North Dallas.” Some called it the “Harlem of the Southwest.” In the 1800s, “Uptown” was considered the outskirts of North Dallas, which is a big reason why black people were allowed to settle there.
Former slaves raised what little money they had to purchase land for their dead, their first financial transaction in Dallas. But as the city began to expand and spread north, business interests overtook the area and started pushing out the black residents. In 1947, construction of the estimated $10 million Central Expressway cut right through State Thomas and uprooted the cemetery.
A large portion was dug up and paved over with no respect for the dead. Gravestones were used to fill ditches and low spots. We don’t know exactly what happened to the remains, but it’s likely that many of them are still buried underneath our cars as we are stuck in traffic on 75.
Later, Woodall Rodgers further split the neighborhood. The black population was dispersed and gradually replaced by white settlement. By the late 1970s, most of the black residents had moved, mostly to South Dallas and Oak Cliff.
When the city expanded the highway in the 1980s, Mamie McKnight, founder of Black Dallas Remembered, didn’t want history repeated. After discovering that graves were being dug up under Lemmon Avenue, she intervened to stop the expansion of the freeway for two years while the city excavated and exhumed the bodies for a dignified reburial of the remains. It was one of the country’s largest cemetery excavation projects. Remnants of the graves can be viewed at the African American Museum’s “Facing the Rising Sun” exhibit, which we visited at the end of the tour.
The last stop in Freedman’s Town was the Moorland Family YMCA, one of only a few Dallas establishments listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book, a traveler’s guide for African Americans to safely navigate Jim Crow America. Many famous black people stayed at this YMCA over the years, including Thurgood Marshall, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Muhammad Ali. Today, the Dallas Black Dance Theatre owns the building.
Colored School #2
Next, the tour passed Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, once known as Colored School #2. There we learned about Dallas’ long and complicated fight for school integration. For a long time, Booker T. Washington was the only school for black people in Dallas. DISD did not officially desegregate until the 1970s due to the city’s flagrant resistance to federal desegregation orders.
School desegregation led to massive white flight to the suburbs. Today, Hispanics make up about 70 percent of DISD’s demographics, African Americans about 22 percent and whites only 5 percent.
Dallas has a dark history of public lynchings. As we descended down the sloping hill and past the grassy knoll of Dealey Plaza, “Strange Fruit” by Nina Simone softly spilled out of the van’s speakers. While Dealey Plaza is almost exclusively known for being the site of the JFK assassination, it was once a popular site for public lynchings.
In 1860, one year before the Civil War, there was a huge fire in Dallas that consumed downtown. The white citizenry, fearful of a John Brown-style uprising, spread rumors about a supposed slave plot instigated by outside abolitionist agitators. For a solid two weeks, dozens of white men went on a rampage and intimidated black citizens in what is often called the “Texas Troubles.” At least 30 slaves, maybe closer to 100, were murdered by white vigilantes that summer.
Three slaves — Patrick Jennings, Samuel Smith and “Cato” Miller — were accused of being the fire plot’s ringleaders and were lynched on the banks of the Trinity River, just a few blocks away from where Kennedy was assassinated. The public hanging was a huge event, attended by every man, woman and child, regardless of race.
The book Hangings and Lynchings in Dallas County, Texas 1853-1920 documents 28 lynchings or hangings in this time period, including the Allen Brooks lynching at the corner of Main and Akard on March 3, 1910. The first person ever to be executed in the state of Texas was Jane Elkins, who was found guilty of murdering her white master while he attempted to rape her. She was hung outside of the Dallas County courthouse on May 27, 1853.
The Bottoms and the Blues
Next came North Oak Cliff, just south of downtown on the southern banks of the Trinity River known as the “Bottoms.” Before dirt levees were built in the 1920s, the Trinity River often flooded the slouching shotgun shacks occupied by former slaves.
In the 1800s, Oak Cliff was its own city, and most of the wealthy white families lived there with their slaves. Some of the first white settlers of Oak Cliff are interred at the top of the hill with their black servants buried at their feet.
As we drove into this historically black neighborhood, the Pinkards played a song by a former resident of the Bottoms, T-Bone Walker. In “Trinity River Blues,” Walker wails, “That dirty Trinity River sure have done me wrong. It came in my windows and doors, now all my things are gone.”
While most of the original residents have moved, the land is being primed for gentrification. Construction near Interstate 35 forced us to detour. The Texas Department of Transportation is decking the freeway to establish a park on top, similar to Klyde Warren. The community is bracing for another eminent domain takeover. The city, meanwhile, maintains it now has processes in place to freeze property taxes for longtime residents, which it hopes will prevent the displacement that occurred in West Dallas after the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge went up near the majority Latino neighborhood of La Bajada.
It’s a common pattern in Dallas. Blacks are relegated to parts of the city that white people aren’t interested in. Then, as the city expands, whites displace blacks from these neighborhoods and claim the area for themselves. Due to this constant encroachment on historically black neighborhoods, many black families have moved out of the city and into the surrounding suburbs of DeSoto, Duncanville, Lancaster and Cedar Hill.
Fire Bombings in South Dallas
On the last leg of the tour, we headed back into South Dallas to an area that experienced unusual racial violence. This was a part of town occupied by the Jewish and Christian community, including Stanley Marcus and his family.
When black people began to move into the neighborhood in the early 1950s, groups of white people drove around and stuck dynamite under the front porches of black-owned homes. There were even reports of sticks of dynamite being hurled out of passing cars as black people were commuting to work.
Throughout the ‘50s, there were at least 50 unsolved bombings in the neighborhood. It’s believed that the Dallas Police Department and the Ku Klux Klan were involved. Dallas never pursued any investigations or legal actions against the perpetrators. Not long after, the city came for them.
Dallas City Hall and the State Fair of Texas had teamed up to take land away from hundreds of black homeowners in Fair Park. It was for “parking,” they claimed, but the real reason shows up in a 1966 report commissioned by the State Fair corporation. They wanted to get rid of the “poor Negroes in shacks” so white fair-goers wouldn’t feel unsafe or uncomfortable. “All that is required is to eliminate the problem from sight,” the report states.
Jackson and the Fair Park homeowners notified the city that they would block the highly anticipated Cotton Bowl Parade on national television with 600 protesters if the mayor did not meet with them. Don reminds us that in 1970, Dallas was desperate to recreate its image in light of the JFK assassination. An undefeated and top-ranked Texas Longhorns team seeking consecutive national championships was the perfect opportunity.
The mayor would meet with the Fair Park homeowners if Jackson called off his planned protest scheduled for New Years Day, 1971. Although the black homeowners still lost their homes, they were able to negotiate more money for their property than before the threat of a Cotton Bowl protest.
Deep Ellum Diversity
Deep Ellum, we were told, was the one area of town where blacks, Hispanics, and whites would gather for shopping, music and entertainment. Famous blues musicians Bessie Smith, “Blind Lemon” Jefferson, Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, Robert Johnson and Sam “Lightnin’” Hopkins played in the clubs and cafés.
“Many of the Jewish merchants who lived on South Blvd. and surrounding neighborhoods owned a lot of the business that were part of the Deep Ellum landscape,” Don told us. “Unlike the major department stores of downtown Dallas, the Jewish merchants in Deep Ellum would actually let their black clients try on their clothes in their stores. So you didn’t just have to purchase it and hope it fits. You could actually try on clothes in Deep Ellum.”
Don noted the historical Knights of Pythias Temple, which is now being restored and converted into a boutique hotel as part of a mixed-use project that will house Uber. The building will be called The Pittman Hotel, named after Texas’ first African American architect William Sidney Pittman — son-in-law of Booker T. Washington — who designed the temple, the first commercial building in Dallas built by and for black professionals.
“Blacks and whites and everybody socialized in this area because it was on the border of the whites that lived in the neighborhood we just left [South Boulevard–Park Row Historic District] and the blacks that lived north,” Don said. “This was kind of the mixing pot right in the middle.”
As we were heading into Two Podners for lunch, Jocelyn said, “Thank you guys for letting us show you our city. It’s a beautiful city even though the history is not what we would have liked. But you have to think about how much we have overcome since that time.”
Hidden in Plain Sight
The antihistorical myths of Dallas exceptionalism ignore the high costs of success in terms of racial and social inequality. Dallas does have a history and it’s important to learn to understand the city’s present and possible future. You cannot fully grasp the long-term neglect of black and Hispanic neighborhoods in the area without an understanding of Dallas’ widespread history of apartheid-style racial politics.
All of the places we visited hide in plain sight. Even though Dallasites drive past these historic sites every day, little is known or taught about them. The Pinkards are trying to change that, one tour at a time.
If the goal of this city is unlimited growth, can Dallas afford to take a hard look at its racist past? Yet, as gentrification and displacement remain ever-present, the real question is, can it afford not to?
Hidden History DFW tours are offered twice a month on Saturdays, with a month-long break during the State Fair. Don and Jocelyn Pinkard also offer private tours that can be customized for groups of up to 50 people.
For tickets, prices and more information on Hidden History DFW, visit hiddenhistorydfw.com.