Witnessing Dallas’ hidden history

The rich history of Dallas’ African-American community is concealed in neighborhoods throughout the city. These sites preserve the record of the first arrivals to Dallas and Texas. Each site tells the story of how African-Americans shaped the city and developed a unique way of life.

Boarding a bus in East Dallas, the Hidden History Tour began at the J.B. Jackson Bus Station. The tour guide told a story about Jackson, a political activist who protested the taking of African-American property through imminent domain in 1969. Jackson and then Dallas Mayor J. Erik Jonsson were involved in negotiations to keep protesters from blocking the annual Cotton Bowl parade.

Sculpture by David Newton at Freedmen’s Cemetery in Uptown Dallas.

Sculpture by David Newton at Freedmen’s Cemetery in Uptown Dallas.

“Jackson received a concession in the 11th hour that Jackson would ride in the lead car with the mayor in the Cotton Bowl parade,” tour guide Dan Pinkard said.

Freedmen’s Cemetery is located at I-75 and Lemmon Avenue. The site is located on land once owned by African-Americans on both sides of the expressway. The cemetery is where freed blacks were buried. Even in death, the mixing of races was forbidden in the early years of Dallas.

“From 1850, there are between 2,000 and 2,500 African-Americans [buried] here,” Pinkard said.

The area now known as Uptown was once the location of the first African-American community in Dallas.

Griggs Park, south of Freedmen’s Cemetery, surrounded by condominiums, town-houses and upscale homes, was originally named Hall Street Negro Park. It was purchased for Juneteenth celebrations. Reverend Allen R. Griggs and the New Hope Baptist Church purchased the park in 1913. It was later sold to the city of Dallas.

“[This was] one of seven parks that the city of Dallas purchased so that its black citizens would not have to attend the same park with its white citizens,” Pinkard said.

Just a few blocks away is the YMCA built for African-Americans. Pinkard said the builder would not start the process until $50,000 was raised to erect the building. To what may have been the surprise of white residents, $75,000 was raised to build the facility. Not only was it a YMCA, it was also a boarding house and meeting hall. The building had 20 rooms available to African-Americans. The facility was listed in the Green Book as a location where African-Americans could stay the night.

“The Green Book was written by Victor Greens,” said Jocelyn Pinkard, also a guide on the tour.

The Green Book listed places where African-Americans could find housing, gas and purchase goods while traveling in the South,” she said. The Dallas Black Dance Theatre now owns the facility.

Entering the business district of Dallas, the tour bus approached the Majestic Theatre. African-Americans were not able to attend performances at the Majestic until 1925. That year, African-Americans were able to purchase tickets but had to enter through a side gate and sit upstairs in the balcony. That practice continued until the 1960s when civil rights activist Juanita Craft made it an issue and fought to change the practice.

Leaving downtown on Elm Street, just past the Sixth Floor Museum, is an unmarked park where three men were hung for burning down the city of Dallas in the 1860s, said George Keaton, the owner of Hidden Tours.

“On July 24, 2019, a plaque will be placed at the historical site to mark the event,” said Keaton.

Sculpture of Rosa Parks in Downtown Dallas.

Sculpture of Rosa Parks in Downtown Dallas.

Pinkard pointed out two bronze statues of prominent African-Americans downtown. A statue of Chicago Cubs Hall of Fame shortstop Ernie Banks is located in front of Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. A statue of Rosa Parks, the seamstress who took a seat at the front of the bus and sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, is at Rosa Parks Plaza on Lamar Street. It was installed to commemorate on the 60th anniversary of the boycott.

The tour continued across the Trinity River to Oak Cliff, an area of town where African-Americans could settle and call home. Pinkard pointed out The Bottoms, a neighborhood where black people got their start on the American dream. It was home to musician T-Bone Walker, who found inspiration to write songs like “Trinity River Blues,” and Rafer Johnson, who won the decathlon Olympic gold medal in 1960.

The historic Trinity River floods were a part of everyday life. Pinkard said African-Americans who were able to “move up,” moved to the Tenth Street area of the neighborhood. Blacks and Anglos were buried in the Oak Cliff cemetery, but not side by side.

The Forest Theater is a short drive from Oak Cliff. It’s located on the corner of I-75 and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. According to Pinkard, this is where the headline acts would come to perform for African-Americans in Dallas. Pinkard said Craft, the previously mentioned civil rights activist, lived on Warren Street, just off MLK Boulevard, and became the city’s first African-American city council representative. South Boulevard, one block to the north, was once home to a thriving Jewish community. A statue of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. is located in front of the community center that bears his name.

The African-American Museum, located in Fair Park, offers a closer look at life in Freedman’s Town. The second floor exhibit gives visitors a much better look at life in the past. Deep Ellum was an area where African-Americans, Anglos, and Mexicans could meet and socialize. It was the only place in Dallas where merchants would allow African-Americans to try on clothes before they purchased them. The history of the struggles and celebrations are documented in the exhibits. Items on display include documents of a woman who was sold into slavery, years after the executive order for the Emancipation Proclamation and a Ku Klux Klan robe that is protected behind glass.

Deep Ellum, Hamilton Park, the Old Red Courthouse, Little Egypt and churches like New Hope Baptist, where African-American leaders would speak on the issues of the day, are also on the tour. African-American history in Dallas covers the time period from the early 1800s to the present.

“It was culturally enriching; the exhibits, the locations, the history, was really complete and educational,” tourist George Gilchrist, Jr. said

For more information about Hidden Tours, visit www.hiddenhistory.org and www.rememberingblackdallas.org.