Today’s social environment reflects the turbulent and difficult times in which we find ourselves. We are experiencing national and global anger over the senseless killing of George Floyd and other African Americans by police. Black lives do matter, and people of good will acutely feel for those who are in pain. We are aware that we must continue the struggle for meaningful and enduring change to overcome acts of racism and violence that corrode our nation and the world.
Sadly, these recent events have a related, dark past stretching back for centuries. Some acts of racial violence have received attention, while others have gone undocumented. In the photography collection at the DeGolyer Library, we hold illustrations of past racial injustice in our region. The importance of photography in documenting such events can not be overestimated.
In Dallas on March 3, 1910, Allen Brooks, a 65-year old African-American laborer accused of rape, awaited arraignment at the Dallas County Courthouse. An angry vigilante crowd of white men had gathered outside. They broke into the courthouse and threw Brooks out a second-story window. He was then stabbed and beaten. With a rope around his neck, he was dragged through the street and strung up on a telephone pole near the Elk Arch in downtown. A crowd of 5,000 men, women, and children dispassionately watched as if it were a sporting event. Spectators took pieces of Brooks’s clothing as souvenirs. The sensational story of Allen Brooks’s lynching was disturbing enough to make national and even international newspapers; however, there is still no marker to commemorate his violent death.
While times were tough for most blacks after the Civil War, they still had their emancipation to celebrate. It was June 19, 1865, when Union General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston with the announcement that the war was over, and slaves had been emancipated two years before. The day came to be known as Juneteenth, an annual day for African Americans to celebrate their freedom and advancement.
Post Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist hate group, was active throughout the south, and Texas was no exception. Their initial goal was the suppression of African Americans, but by the 1920s they also included hatred of Catholics, Jews, and foreigners. In 1922, with six thousand members, Fort Worth had one of the strongest Klans in the country. Its members, to quote the Star-Telegram on April 3, 1922, were the “best men in every walk of life,” and many were policemen. When the city finance commissioner, W.B. Townsend, died in 1923, the Dallas Morning News reported his funeral included what was called the first Klan funeral parade ever held.
The Tulsa, Oklahoma, race riot and massacre that took place May 31 and June 1, 1921, has been called the single worst incident of racial violence in U.S. history. A black teenage shoe shiner, Dick Rowland, was accused of assaulting a white female elevator operator. The ensuing racial attack by white mobs destroyed more than 35 square blocks in the wealthiest African American community in America, known as Black Wall Street. The Red Cross estimated 300 blacks dead, 1,250 residences burned, and many homes looted. However, those published estimates could greatly underestimate the real numbers.
Hispanic Americans have also faced racism and violence and are also documented in our collections. In Dallas, in the early morning of July 24, 1973, 12 year old Santos Rodriguez and his 13 year old brother, David, were taken from their home, handcuffed, and put in a police squad car. They were accused of robbing a gas station vending machine. Without a warrant, the boys were taken to the gas station for interrogation. A white officer, Darrell L. Cain, tried to get a confession from the Rodriguez brothers, but they consistently denied the crime. Officer Cain then got out his gun, removed some bullets, and put the revolver to Santos’s head. Threatening to kill him, Cain began to play Russian roulette. He pulled the trigger, an empty round. Cain fired again, sending a bullet into Santos’s head killing the boy instantly. It was later proved that the Rodriguez brothers had nothing to do with the petty cash robbery. Cain was sentenced to five years in prison for murder with malice; however, he only served two and a half years for killing the Hispanic child. A few days after Santos’s death, there was a march of protest attended by a multiracial group of 5,000 Latino, African American, and white citizens.
The struggle for racial equality and human rights has been ongoing for a very long time. My great-great-grandfather was a white abolitionist. William Harrison Smith, who lived in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was a church deacon and part of the Underground Railroad. He operated a “safe house” in the 1850s and 1860s and helped get fugitive slaves north to safety in Canada. Because helping slaves was illegal, everyone who worked with the Underground Railroad worked secretly, usually at night and did so at great risk. It is important to remember in the turbulence of today that the Underground Railroad was interracial. It’s an example of whites and blacks working together for a common cause to promote liberty and ultimately equality. Times have changed since the Underground Railroad in the 19th century, but clearly much more change is needed. The future holds promise along with many challenges. Black and brown lives matter, and we all need to work toward a future of lasting change for racial equality.
Photographs such as the ones shown here, and many more like them in our collection, help to illustrate where we’ve been, and how much more work we have to do to form ‘a more perfect Union.’
Anne E. Peterson, Curator of Photographs, DeGolyer Library, SMU