I. BLACK DALLAS, 1910
DALLAS WAS TWO CITIES at the turn of the century. There was the increasingly dense central city: ambitious building projects on Main Street jostling for space closest to the Trinity River, houses of increasing elegance rising along the city’s unpaved spokes—Ross, Swiss, Bryan. But just north, across the tracks of the Texas and Pacific Railroad, there grew a dense settlement of cottages, brick boarding houses, shotgun shacks, churches, schools, and businesses. The Kansas and Texas Railroad formed its eastern edge; to the west it clung to and spilled over the Houston and Texas lines. Called State-Thomas after the section formed by the two most heavily commercial streets in the area, it was also known as Freedmanstown, White Rock, or just North Dallas. Freed African-American slaves and their descendants had lived there since Emancipation. In this online exhibit you can see examples of the homes, religious activities, and businesses that these people made; the clothes they wore to work, to play, to church.
Unincorporated and even unmapped until after post-Civil War migration swelled both populations, this parallel city provided workers and consumers for Dallas without allowing them an equal share in its planning or its protections. The economically and socially diverse community north of downtown encompassed everyone from railroad laborers to a settled professional class. All left their mark on the built environment, whether clapboard houses or staid brick cottages. Bluitt-Winn, Hall, Brooks: by the 1940s, these names of “old families” were sufficient to signify whose respectable home was whose in a scrapbook made by a local African-American women’s arts group, excerpts from which you can see below. The entire album has been digitized and is available at the website of SMU’s Central University Library.
II. DALLAS RISING
THE END OF THE CIVIL WAR brought migration from both freed slaves and white southerners of varying social position. They rode in on and came for the railroad, which took the regional cotton crop, clothes, and other goods around the country. Beginning in 1910, Mexicans fleeing the violence of the Revolution would move to portions of North Dallas and other segregated neighborhoods to join African-Americans in building and maintaining the railroads, farming the cotton, and working in any number of the domestic and industrial jobs that fueled the engines of the city’s growth. For decades Dallas would serve as one of the largest cotton distribution centers in the United States, and the downtown thrived. There, south of the Texas and Pacific, was the Dallas of picture postcards and propulsive industrial growth, a regional hub for manufacturing and shipping framed by a latticework of railroads. Banks, insurance companies, and manufacturers competed to make the most impressive contribution to the built canyons along Commerce, Main, and Elm Streets, anchored by the huge, red granite edifice of the county courthouse.
The population was exploding. In 1860 it was 678; by 1870 it was 3,680, the largest city in Texas. The population would triple every ten years until 1910, when it more than doubled to reach 92,000; by 1920 it would grow to 152,000. Dallas faced serious infrastructure limitations, including the untamed Trinity River, whose 1908 flood would wipe out a western portion of the city. Hungry for new citizens and investment, local civic boosters began in earnest Dallas’s transformation from a perceived saloon town into proper modern city.
Signs of this coordinated campaign for improvement were everywhere: new construction on the State Fair grounds at Fair Park in 1905; the completion of the first steel skyscraper, the Praetorian Building, in 1907; the invitation of city planning advocate J. Horace McFarland to speak in 1910. Subsequent to McFarland’s speech in February of that year, Dallas Morning News editor G.B. Dealey and the Mayor created the City Plan and Improvement League. Once formed they would contract St. Louis architect George Kessler to create the first city plan for Dallas. In 1908, Dallas hosted the National Convention of the Fraternal Order of the Elks, another sign of the effort to establish its national reputation and outshine its regional rivals.
III. THE ELKS ARCH
NEWSPAPER ACCOUNTS DESCRIBE the many pounds of meat cooking, the hundreds of feet of bunting hung as the city enthusiastically welcomed the Elks and their tourist dollars. The Dallas chapter of the Elks erected a decorative arch across the intersection of Main and Akard streets on the chief approach to the city by wagon or automobile from the east,nearly adjacent to what was then City Hall.
The Elks Arch was a three-story, steel, white, blue, and purple edifice topped with an elk statue, lined with light bulbs and faux antlers. Given to the city by the Elks after the close of the convention, the arch was lit on weekends and festive occasions; the inscription was changed from “Welcome Elkdom” to say “Welcome Visitors.” While it quickly became a highly photographed, highly commemorated landmark, controversy remained over whether the arch was a sign of the city’s modern sensibilities or a garish, tacky intrusion on an aspiring Main Street. When, after his speech espousing the wide boulevards and clear lines of sight valued by the City Beautiful movement, J. Horace McFarland was asked to make recommendation for the arch, his reply was one word: “Dynamite.”
IV. A CONTEXT OF VIOLENCE
MORE SERIOUS CONFLICTS ANIMATED other aspects of the built environment. In 1860, investigation into a supposed arson meant the terrorizing of most of the over 600 slaves in Dallas County, and ultimately the execution of three of them somewhere in the marshy whipping fields of the Trinity. The episode proved a propaganda victory for secessionists, who parlayed the supposed insurrection into support for Texas’s vote for secession in 1861. After the U.S. Civil War ended, vagrancy laws shaped the settlement of the Freedmanstown areas in the State-Thomas and nearby Central Track—or Deep Ellum—area. Block-by-block residential segregation would not become official policy in Dallas until after World War I, but by then Plessy v. Ferguson had affirmed the long-standing segregation of streetcars, city parks, and the State Fair. Throughout the post-Reconstruction era, routine reporting in the Dallas Examiner, the Daily Times Herald, Dallas Morning News of lynchings in the region conveyed an unmissable background message about the consequences of trifling with established order. It was within this context that a mob of approximately 5,000 people lynched Allen Brooks in downtown Dallas on March 3, 1910.
V. THE LYNCHING
MARY ETHEL BEUVENS lived at Ross and Pearl Streets, near the heart of downtown Dallas. On February 27 of 1910, when she was three years old, she went missing for less than four hours. She was discovered with Allen Brooks, a 65-year old African-American laborer who often worked in the Beuvens home; both were examined by a doctor. Brooks was accused of attempted rape. At this historical remove any definitive judgment about guilt or innocence would be difficult at best. What we do know is the outline of his torture and death.
The Daily Times Herald and Morning News kept up a drumbeat of attention to the sensational case while the county sheriff, Arthur Ledbetter, creatively dissembled on Brooks’s actual whereabouts in order to dissuade the mob action he knew to be likely. On the day of Brooks’s arraignment, a crowd surrounded first the jail and then the massive county courthouse at Jefferson and Main. Ledbetter unsuccessfully attempted to distract and repel them—letting them search the empty jail, setting up chains and ropes along the entrances and stairwells between the street and the second story courtroom where the hearing was taking place.
As the souvenir images in this collection demonstrate, the courthouse was, like other sites in the city, a point of civic pride. Built to be invulnerable to fire, it was among the most prominent and imposing buildings in the Dallas skyline. It was, however, no help to Allen Brooks. The crowd broke through the extra security when a rumor that Brooks might be taken elsewhere had proven too much for them to bear patiently. As the court record (which you can read here) shows, his court appointed counsel had not applied for a change of venue, but simply for time to secure witnesses before trial. The crowd shoved judges and sheriff’s deputies aside, forcing their way into the locked jury room where Brooks was hidden. After pulling the terrified Brooks out of the courtroom, tying a rope around him, and violently jerking him to the ground through second story window, the crowd thought him to be dead. Shouts still went up to “take him to the Arch.” They then dragged him about half a mile on Main to its intersection with Akard Street, where the Elks Arch stood.
VI. TECHNOLOGIES OF MEMORY
His face was a ruin when they reached the intersection. As a group of men hung him from a telephone pole adjacent to the arch, the crowd peeled off in pieces what was left of his felt shirt. His brief elevation was long enough to take a souvenir photograph, a characteristic feature of what historians now call spectacle lynchings–or, more to the point, terror lynchings. Combining the relatively new technology of the handheld camera with the already ubiquitously popular souvenir postcard, real photographic postcards allowed people to capture special events or sites from their own perspective: fairs, cars, parades. Those real photographic postcards might in turn be reproduced as conventional print postcards. The annotations such lynching postcards suggest that most producers and consumers of lynching postcards thought of lynchings as they did other forms of mass entertainment—“the barbecue we had last Tuesday,” writes one.
In this online exhibit are digital representations of six extant copies of the lynching postcard, both in its real photograph form and in its print reproduction form. The diversity and reach of these postcards conveys a sense of the varied efforts to commodify the events of the day. The real photographic postcard would have been printed from film taken that very day, the prints made later and distributed. An annotated personal copy of the postcard is included in James Allen’s book of lynching postcards, Without Sanctuary. Allen’s commentary points out the spectators the second-story windows of the Palace Drug Store peering over the teeming streets. In the foreground are three figures; two face the camera unflinchingly, and one, in a checked dress, has her back to the photographer, facing the southeast corner of Akard and Main where Brooks’s body dangles in the shade of the arch. They are children.
At present, the real souvenir postcard immediately above is the only known copy of its kind still in existence. It does not depict the actual hanging, but the aftermath. Handwritten annotation on the reverse of the card suggests the photograph of the street scene was taken two hours afterward, well after the body was cut down. A reduced but still significant crowd mills about, talking, unhurried.
The remainder of the mob, newspapers tell us, had split up, giving itself over to searching the prison and stopping trains in attempts to find more “elusive negroes” to kill. One man rallied the group to the search by saying, “You have done the work of men today and your deeds will resound in every State, village and hamlet where purity and innocence are cherished and bestiality and lechery condemned. That noblest of all orders, the Elks, builded [sic] wiser than they knew when they erected that arch, for today it was an instrument of swift justice.”
In the following days, debate in the city papers would center on the need for quicker legal executions, which some argued would alleviate the justified bloodlust of the people. Judge Robert Seay, who had presided over Brooks’s interrupted arraignment, impaneled a grand jury instructed to determine who could be held responsible for the mob violence. Even Seay, however, felt it important to state the obvious: that Brooks still deserved to die. Allen Brooks’s body was buried in the black cemetery north of downtown.
Within a year, the arch was removed from the intersection.
VII. CONTRITION OR CONVENIENCE?
WHY WAS THE ARCH MOVED? Examination of City Council minutes and accounts in the Dallas Morning News of the activities of the City Plan and Improvement League (CPIL) demonstrate that city planning boosters had targeted the arch well before the lynching episode. As J. Horace McFarland’s prescription for the arch indicates, the CPIL and its modernizing allies perceived the arch as aesthetically displeasing, a contradiction to the ostensibly more sophisticated practice of wide boulevards and clear air.
A June 1910 request from the Southwestern Life Insurance Company to remove the arch so that it could work on its sewer system in the new building proved decisive. Over the objections of loyal Elks, the arch was dismantled; by the end of 1911 the arch’s skeletal frame was re-erected at the state fairgrounds—Fair Park—where it served as a pavilion for the naval ship display. Rather than a dramatic act of contrition, the removal of the arch is consistent with the basic indifference to the grim history of the intersection: parades, traffic, shopping, and new construction simply carry on as normal.
VIII. MAKING WHITENESS IN DALLAS
DALLAS’S RELATIONSHIP TO RACE is complicated and particular, like any city. It should be said, for example, that Dallas Morning News editor G.B. Dealey ran a sustained editorial campaign against the highly active Klu Klux Klan ch. 66. Yet, poll taxes, the City Commissioner system, and the 1903 Texas electoral law that paved the way for whites-only primaries prevented African-Americans from consolidating any electoral power. Segregation on streetcars, interurban rail, and rail cars had long been a reality for Dallas men and women; in 1907 the city charter was amended to enforce officially segregation in churches, public amusements, and schools. Block-by-block segregation by resident referendum became a formal organizing principal of Dallas expansion in 1921. Water fountains, movie theaters, and schools became instruments of a profound and generational dispossession—what historians now understand as cultural work integral to the creation and maintenance of the notion of whiteness itself. And in whatever sense some city elites dissented, it is also true that the Klan was enormously successful in recruiting in Dallas after World War I; its members felt free to enact the racial drama they felt organized the city, abusing men and women of color in secret, sending the women’s auxiliary drum corps to perform at Union Station, holding unmasked ceremonies and children’s programs, embracing a “Klan Day” at the State Fair.
Whites in Dallas thus expended enormous energy maintaining distinct social and racial boundaries. In spite of the very real and routine public programs of degradation this entailed, ranging from segregationist policy to outright violence against bodies and property, African-Americans and other people of color continued to make their life in Dallas through the construction of parallel institutions and businesses. At the same time, many engaged in the complicated, protracted struggle for integration and equal rights.
Today Dallas’s built environment engages other aspects of difficult history—most obviously the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza, Sixth Floor Museum, and other interpretive efforts to engage the legacy of the Kennedy assassination. Is there a sense in which the difficult histories of race and violence are visible in the landscape of downtown Dallas?
IX. DISLOCATED MEMORIES
It is true that through the assiduous efforts of Dr. Mamie McKnight and Black Dallas Remembered, the African American Museum, and other community stakeholders there are efforts to put complexity and struggle on display—most dramatically at the Freedman’s Cemetery site and the Juanita Craft Civil Rights House. But these markers of dispossession are not part of the core memorial experience of the city. They are on the economic and cartographical margins, distant from the pedestrian encounter with downtown.
In the case of the Freedman’s Cemetery, Brooks’s final resting place, the invisibility and marginalization have been literal. Rediscovered in the process of expanding Highway 75, even its elaborate re-consecration leaves it outside of meaningful pedestrian itineraries. Massive statues of emancipated slaves look east over the busy access road and congestion of the primary north-south route through the city. These ambiguous interventions of difficult history on public memory are less common than simple erasure. The former County Courthouse is now the Old Red Museum of Dallas County History and Culture, and there a small display notes the lynching episode. But at the intersection of Akard and Main, as with nearly 4,000 similar lynching episodes, there is no marker or recognition of any kind. In a similar way this silence is repeated in State-Thomas, Deep Ellum, and other neighborhoods where people of color were once concentrated: the People’s Undertaker’s building is replaced by the startling emptiness of criss-crossed access roads; the State-Thomas intersection with Hall Street transformed into a solid block of Uptown condominiums.
How did this happen? Vagrancy laws, outright residential segregation, and redlining practices kept people of color concentrated and property values low. This resulted in relatively easy seizure and destruction of lots for the laying of highways throughout Dallas in the 1940s, and for re-development in the aftermath of this further devaluation. Former inhabitants moved to West and then South Dallas, middle class African Americans often moving farther south to Desoto, or east to Mesquite. North Dallas gradually disappeared from City Hall maps. This old neighborhood, rechristened Oak Lawn on its western edge and Uptown in the east, has become dense, wealthy, and white. The Freedman’s Cemetery sits in a census tract that in was 92% black in 1970 and in 2010 was 87% white. The surge of redevelopment that began in earnest in the 1970s means that, today, spatial markers that could interpret the racial and social history of these places are now obscured.
Booker T. Washington High School and St. Paul United Methodist Church sit incongruously in the shadow of Woodall Rogers Freeway. While in many ways superficially the same as they were in 1942, these buildings anchor the Arts District instead of the institutional heart of Black Dallas as they did when these photos were taken. The old Knights of Pythias building, built by Dallas’s first black architect, is boarded up and painted over, bearing the patchwork modifications and outdated signage of its multiple owners. Grey and white, it offers its blank face to visitors and commuters approaching Dallas from the south. Pegasus Plaza Park now sits at the intersection of Akard and Main, in fact containing a plaque that notes the common struggles against bloodshed and economic precarity that have united Dallasites throughout history. This plaque does not mention the lynching that happened no more than fifty feet away. As it has done since 1910, when it removed the arch to work on a sewer system, the collective voice of the city passes over the site of the Brooks lynching in silence.
To cite this website, use the following format:
Dowdy, Christopher J. (2015). Dallas Untold. Retrieved [insert the date of access here, without brackets] from www.blog.smu.edu/untolddallas.
The images and documents in the preceding may be shared on social media only with the relevant attributions. Any other use should involve contacting the repositories credited in each caption. The text relies heavily on the primary sources collected here, contemporary reports in the Dallas Morning News and the Dallas Daily Times Herald, and the many secondary sources indicated on the “Maps and Further Resources” page. We welcome comments and questions about the materials collected here. To respond, please use the contact form below.
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