There But For The Grace of God

As the Tenth Street freedmen's town crumbles, its would-be saviors bicker among the ruins

In a small pocket of Oak Cliff, the twin steeples of Sunshine Elizabeth Chapel once rose above a neighborhood unlike any other in Dallas, signaling passersby that they had entered an area known collectively as Tenth Street.

The street which gives the neighborhood its name still winds up hills, upon which sit small, wood-framed houses. Narrow roads--just one car wide--meander between the tiny homes, whose eaves seem to whisper secrets to one another. It is a communal place, haunted by front porch spirits, shared meals, and the missing voices of playing children.

There isn't much left of the 106-year-old church, which stands sentinel at one end of Tenth Street. It is a ruin, a three-sided hull, its back broken, its walls standing only by the grace of God. The once-proud steeples are equally spent. One has been taken down and sits in a clearing next to the dilapidated chapel. The other is still atop the building, but lists to one side.

Once the church and the neighborhood surrounding it were a testament to the ingenuity and determination of Dallas' African-Americans. Tenth Street is the oldest relatively intact freedmen's town in Dallas, with many of its original buildings still standing. It was the place newly freed slaves moved after leaving plantations. Local historians say it was a starter neighborhood where people lived before going "in town" to State-Thomas, another historical black neighborhood considered a rung up on the social ladder.

Most of Dallas' other early freedmen's towns have been bulldozed to make way for high-rise shops and trendy apartments, or have just been lost through attrition and ruin.

Tenth Street is still there, anchored by the Sunshine Elizabeth Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church--the oldest standing black church in Dallas. It has weathered storms of change--from Jim Crow to civil rights, from rising fortunes to depression--and survived the slow exodus of its children.

For more than 15 years--since the church was first declared a historic structure--various groups have stepped forward with grand plans to save the building and make it the cornerstone of a revitalized neighborhood.

But now a demolition order hangs over the church, and the eaves of nearby houses whisper of abandoned dreams and broken promises.

A postmortem of sorts is under way as city employees take photographs and measurements of the old church, so there will be a record after it's torn down. It is an ignoble end for the onetime freedmen's sanctuary.

It is also an allegory of Tenth Street's plight.
"The church is a symbol of what that neighborhood has become," says Donald Payton, a former historian with the Dallas Historical Society and a descendent of one of the original freedmen's families that settled in Tenth Street. "It is a symbol of the deterioration."

Despite its residue of charm, Tenth Street is indeed troubled. The neighborhood's 15-block core, located on the northeastern edge of Oak Cliff, is showing signs of wear. Most of the houses need work, from a simple coat of paint to a full-scale refurbishing. On every block there is at least one house boarded up or red-tagged by the city for code violations or demolition.

Tenth Street has reached this state in spite of nearly a decade of interest from local, state, and national historical organizations. They've conducted studies, issued pamphlets, and made declarations of historic significance for Tenth Street. They've drafted plans explaining how the area could be salvaged. At least five local nonprofits have proferred ideas for saving the neighborhood, and several city departments have weighed in with their own proposals.

But Tenth Street is in worse shape today than it has ever been, and its historic homes continue to suffer from neglect, awaiting the city's bulldozers.

Why has there been no neighborhood renaissance--even on a small scale, such as that of Winnetka Heights in Oak Cliff? "That is the $64,000 question," says Kate Singleton, a historic preservationist who wrote the first historic designation report for the Sunshine Elizabeth Chapel back in 1978, when she worked for the city's planning department. "We have all been asking ourselves that for the past 15 years. If I knew that, it would be done now."

The biggest problem appears to be the people who say they want to save Tenth Street, but can't stop fighting among themselves long enough to make any headway in actually helping the neighborhood. Rather than coordinating their efforts, Tenth Street's would-be saviors have spent much of their time clashing over who has first claim to to the hero's mantle.

While preservationist groups bicker among the ruins, the neighborhood continues to decline--the church collapsing, the bulldozers coming for aging houses.

The squabbling led to the loss of nearly $200,000 in national grant money that could have been used to fix up houses, and this year, 22 more houses are slated for demolition.

Still, members of the neighborhood groups are reluctant to acknowledge that the squabbling even exists.

Chris Hunter, executive director of the Tenth Street Historic Community Development Corporation, refused several requests for an interview for this story, fearing that a newspaper article might reveal some of the spats his group has had with another preservation-minded organization, Dallas Neighbors. As this article was going to press, Hunter abruptly changed course and granted a brief interview.

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