Forgotten Black History: What’s Buried in Dallas

As followers of Christ, we can advance toward reconciliation by recognizing the past, owning our mistakes and loving others well.

Topics: Race | Culture

Every February, Black History Month brings meaningful stories to the surface that otherwise might be tragically forgotten. These buried stories provide context for understanding many of our enduring, racial divisions. It is essential that, year after year, we retell these stories so that when we relive their circumstances, we will recognize opportunities for reconciliation and break the lasting cycles of injustice.

This particular story is about Dallas, but it is important for everyone, regardless of location. This story began, for me, with a photograph. The first time I saw the photograph (shown above), it captivated me. The more I looked at it, the more it drew me in. It evoked a strange and haunting emotion. Its characters and setting sparked my curiosity.

It is a candid press photograph from 1950 of a shack along an unpaved road in the Mill Creek slum district of Dallas, just south of Deep Ellum. No utilities. No plumbing. No street lights. No garbage pickup. In the photo, there are several rundown city buses parked as makeshift homes, available for $5 a week, the only vacant one with a “FOR RENT” sign visible on its windshield. A group of wealthy white men in suits and hats is engaged in conversation. “Dallas leaders,” The Dallas Morning News called them, and they were there to inspect “negro living conditions.”

The Crisis

In 1950, Dallas had a black housing crisis. African-Americans were expected to live only in certain neighborhoods, the Mill Creek slum being one of them. These neighborhoods were under-served and over-crowded. On more than a dozen occasions, black Dallasites who dared to purchase houses in “white neighborhoods” were welcomed to the community with explosions of dynamite on their porches. One displaced man’s new home had been stoned by an angry crowd of white women who did not want a black man for a neighbor. The mayor of Dallas assured the city that “there wouldn’t be anymore trouble” if whites would just stop selling homes to blacks in neighborhoods where they were “not wanted.” In other words, as long as blacks stayed in places like the Mill Creek slum, white Dallas would not resort to violence.

Police inspect what is left of the door on the porch of a Dallas residence that had been recently dynamited in an act of racially motivated violence. (1951) From the collection of the Texas/Dallas History and Archives Division, Dallas Public Library

In the foreground of the Mill Creek slum photograph stands a lone black boy, looking straight into the camera. In a sense, he personifies poverty-stricken, black Dallas, the same way the men in suits embody wealthy, white Dallas. The boy looks sad and isolated, understandably and heartbreakingly so. The wealthy white men nearby had, literally and figuratively, turned their backs on him.

Rolled-up plans can be seen in one of the men’s hands. Dallas had been forming a plan on how to redevelop this slum land, how to remove the “blight” from the face of Dallas. They had plans to clear the slums—to condemn them, take them by force from their current owners and ready them for “redevelopment.” Their plans would bring economic progress to the area. Their plans did not include, however, the little boy from Mill Creek. Their plans would not provide “sanitary” alternatives for his family to move into. Historian Harvey J. Graff said of Dallas’ slum clearance that it “drove African Americans out of their homes without providing for their relocation…displacement by clearance worsened the plight of the poor and increased racial concentration.”

Looking northwest from I-45 and I-30 (2009)

The Creek

The creek that the slum was named for does not exist in Dallas anymore. Mill Creek was once a wandering tributary that zigzagged from deep in the city and joined the Trinity River just south of downtown. In 1912, a city planner recommended that Mill Creek, like Turtle Creek, be turned into a meandering and beautiful boulevard with homes paralleling the stream as it snaked through Dallas. Unfortunately, Mill Creek, like the little boy and his family who lived on its banks, had been neglected. It became a “menace to public health.” It got so filthy, reeking and disease-ridden from “trash and human waste” that Dallas literally buried it. What was once full of promise was covered over. Likewise, what was once the Mill Creek slum district—where this forgotten child and his family and many others called home—is now covered by the I-45 / I-30 interchange.

Slum clearance is just one piece of the disturbingly extensive list of racial injustices in the history of Dallas. Most people don’t know the history of racism in this city, and many believe that it is due to intentional omissions in local history. “In this obsessively image-conscious city, elites feared that a conflict-marred past filled with class and racial strife represented a dangerous model for the future. City leaders transformed the community into a laboratory of forgetfulness” (Michael Phillips, White Metropolis).

Burying the ugly parts of our past is not a step forward but a step backward.

Dallas forgot. Dallas forgot on purpose. Dallas buried its ugly past. Buried it like the unsightly creek it had disregarded. Dallas has tried to entomb its overtly prejudiced systems, as well as its long string of explicitly racist incidents. It has perpetually forgotten the marginalized people it produces. Yet, the segregated landscape of DFW today, relationally and residentially, is the collateral damage of decades of explicit racism. Like many American cities, the Metroplex is not a true melting pot; it is a chain of segregated ethnically homogenous islands—neighborhoods and suburbs separated by roads, railways and rivers—that stand as residential borders for each race and economic class.

Racial division in America, specifically in DFW, is thriving and it is not new. It is a part of our legacy. Burying the ugly parts of our past is not a step forward but a step backward. Former SMU professor Dr. William Farmer said about Dallas’ relationship with its awful past, “It’s like a family going through a trauma but suppressing the memory. The past is forgotten, but essential to coming to health is recalling.” The first step toward racial reconciliation is “recalling” the contributing historical influences of our separations, disparities and hostilities.

This map shows the racial distribution of Dallas’ population in 2010. Photo from U.S. Racial Dot Map. Image Copyright, 2013, Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia (Dustin A. Cable, creator)

The Course Ahead

Like Dallas, we all have those things in our past we wish we could go back and change for the better. At the same time, our background, however broken, has shaped who we are and who we will be, and the same is true for our city. There is a lot to love about Dallas: economic opportunity, weather (mostly), food, parks, safety, sports, entertainment, a diverse population, and DFW is littered with God-fearing, gospel-preaching churches. In many regards, it is a great American city, and I am proud to live here. It’s my love for our city that makes me grieve all the more over our shameful past and our enduring divisions.

But, also like Dallas, there is grace and hope for us, regardless of our past, and it is found in following Jesus Christ. Our broken backgrounds are not too great for the Lord to overcome. The question is, in light of our community’s history of injustice, how can individuals advance the hope for racial harmony? God’s call to Christians is to be a people of love and reconciliation, and there is great opportunity for that in America right now. Here are some very practical things we can do immediately to be a part of Christ-centered racial reconciliation.

1. Learn the Local Past – Start by unearthing the racial history of your community. In Dallas, you might consider visiting the Old Red Museum, The African American History Museum at Fair Park, The Sixth Floor Museum or Founders Square. Read local, racial history books like White Metropolis, Time Change, The Accommodation or The Dallas Myth. These are available for free at the Dallas Public Library.  

2. Confess Our Mistakes – A great first step toward reconciliation would be a confession of contributions our ancestors and we have personally made to the diminishing of others. This is particularly poignant in times of tragedy or exceptional tension. It would best be done in personal relationships or small groups, not necessarily through social media or other impersonal methods. Christians should lead the way in this effort as we confess to God and to one another, pray for forgiveness and ask God for reconciliation.

3. Know Your Community Now – Keep up with the local news. There are stories about racial tensions, debates about gentrification, displacing the poor and systemically disadvantaged, homelessness, refugees and disparities in opportunities. Being informed is important to being an advocate for others. Knowing the history as well as the present helps you make sense of your context. When low-rent apartments are bulldozed to make way for a new retail and restaurant development, stop to consider where those who can only afford low rent will now live. Ask yourself, where can the disenfranchised live in our city in peace and safety? What is the difference between a “slum lord” and a landlord who provides low-rent homes for the poor?

4. Get Involved – Identify the marginalized people around you and those working with them. Dallas has thousands of immigrants, refugees, racially disadvantaged, orphans and homeless. There are ministries and local agencies/non-profits that are actively engaging these populations every day. Buckner is tackling many of these issues, especially as it pertains to our city’s orphans. Union Gospel Mission, City Square and Dallas Life all serve our homeless population. Seek the Peace and For the Nations are doing great work with many of our refugees. Bonton Farms, Mercy Street and Champions of Hope are trying to help residents overcome racial disadvantages. Instead of perpetuating the pattern of turning our collective backs on the marginalized, get involved in helping. Think about who is being forgotten in Dallas today, then make your voice heard for them in local government, local schools and your local church.

5. Love Well – Addressing racial reconciliation is not as simple as having a friend who is not the same ethnicity as you, however, that is a great place to start. Consider your closest friends and the places you spend time in. How could you truly love on those who are different than you by taking steps toward intentional and genuine friendship with them? Another good way to start is by reading books, listening to music and watching films made by those who are different from you.

6. Live Missionally – Consider where you live, where you work and how you spend your leisure time. Could you break with the stereotypes of ethnic segregation and choose to live and be places where you can make a difference by being different? If you live in the suburbs, many of which were fueled by white flight, consider how you could be a reconciling factor in the city.    

These steps are places to start, and it is up to us to carry the torch forward. Black History Month promises that the stories of an outnumbered and oppressed people are not overlooked. It is not merely for the sake of reflection, but it lives on so that, through retrospection, we might better develop institutions and individuals rooted in godly equality and unity. So that divides might be broken down. So that abuses might not be repeated. So that differences of all varieties might be appreciated. So that atonement might be attempted and forgiveness granted. And so that we might all love our neighbors as ourselves.

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