On a chilly February morning, George Keaton stands on the city’s Ronald Kirk Pedestrian Bridge—named after the first black mayor of Dallas—addressing a crowd of two dozen people. As Keaton, the executive director of Remembering Black Dallas, delivers a short lecture on Dallas’s black history, a panoramic view of the city’s skyline unfolds behind him just beyond the Trinity River floodplain. “In most cities, you see that the river is a major portion of the city, or a port,” Keaton says. “We don’t really have that in Dallas anymore.”
For decades, the Trinity has been one of the most polluted rivers in Texas, so much so that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality once ruled that the water was unsafe for extended human contact. But centuries ago, as Keaton explains, the Trinity sustained the Caddo Indians of North Texas, who relied on the river for fishing. In the 1840s, after the Native American tribes were violently removed, John Neely Bryan chose a spot along the river for its access to trade routes, and within a decade, Dallas had received an official charter from the Texas Legislature. The river would remain integral to the region’s economy, but not as an agricultural hub. “Dallas isn’t known for its cotton fields, like people think of all over the South. Dallas was really known for processing cotton,” Keaton explains. The cotton picked by enslaved people elsewhere in Texas was brought to the city by the river, and later by rail, to be milled by enslaved people in Dallas, building up the city as an industrial hub.
Keaton is a prominent, if unofficial, local historian. For the past five years, he’s been on a mission to engage Dallas residents with the city’s long and complex black history by leading bus tours and delivering lectures. The informal history lesson on the Ron Kirk Bridge was put together by the Trinity Park Conservancy, a nonprofit civic organization founded in 2004 with the mission of reshaping the river’s landscape. Not only did it financially support much-needed repairs for the pedestrian bridge, but it’s also been a key part of projects like the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge (which, as many have noted, bears a resemblance to St. Louis’s Gateway Arch). The conservancy has an ambitious plan to “reimagine” the river’s place in the city, building more projects that could serve to reintegrate the Trinity’s banks with the city’s urban core.
This could bring some development to a seemingly wide-open expanse of the city, but Keaton and other Dallas historians are keenly aware that such development can often lead to gentrification—and gentrification in Uptown, the Tenth Street historic district, and Deep Ellum has already erased critical parts of Dallas’s black history. So they lead people on walks to bring these stories to the forefront.
Almost every Saturday, Don and Jocelyn Pinkard lead tours of several historically black neighborhoods, which include some of the trendiest spots in Dallas today, like Uptown and Deep Ellum—both originally founded as freedmen’s towns after the Civil War. “[These neighborhoods] used to be known as the Harlem of the South,” Don Pinkard says. African American musicians, artists, civil rights leaders, educators, and business owners flourished here for generations.