Dead Wrong

Historians complain that a new text on Dallas' black history is riddled with errors

At first, "The Freedman's Memorial" 10-page workbook and teacher's supplement looks harmless enough. A kid is depicted on the cover with his hand on his chin, head cocked, looking up thoughtfully. Inside, the books have drawings of old Dallas and a description of the long-vanished black community known as Freedman's Town in what today is generally north of the Deep Ellum area. The text describes how the town's inhabitants overcame racism and adversity in the post-Civil War South and established themselves in respectable businesses and professions.

"The Dallas Community of Freedmantown was a community of African Americans living in Dallas after the Emancipation Proclamation...This strong, segregated community thrived in freedom and in its sense of community," the booklet says in part.

Blacks in the Freedman's Town area of the city and elsewhere were subjected to incredible difficulties, including poor sanitary conditions, disease and poverty among other things, according to a state-sanctioned study of Freedman's Cemetery published in 2000. Records indicate that Freedman's Town's first residents, many of them former slaves or descendants of slaves, faced limited educational and business opportunities.

Frances James says Dallas students are being misled about the history of this memorial site.
Mark Graham
Frances James says Dallas students are being misled about the history of this memorial site.

Records also indicate that Freedman's Town blacks were true pioneers. They were tough and courageous, persevering through terribly discriminatory and oppressive practices that were commonly applied to them by white Dallas. The Freedman's Town memorial was erected in the 1990s as a testament to those buried at the site and to the persevering spirit that they lived by.

The workbooks, which were paid for by Montgomery Watson Americas Inc. as part of a $50,000 donation to Dallas Independent School District, are supposed to be used in conjunction with field trips to the Freedman's Cemetery and to a Freedman's Town exhibit at the African American Museum in Fair Park.

But some Dallas County Historical Commission members who helped with Freedman's Town preservation efforts say the schoolbooks about Freedman's Town and Freedman's Cemetery should not be handed out as part of an educational experience. Instead of being objective and purely educational, the books--some 20,000 in print--are so racially charged, opinionated and light on fact that they should be dumped and rewritten, says Frances James, a commission member who attempted to get the books revised. She tried to convince the school district and city to make changes for months but was for the most part rebuffed, she says.

"It's more inflammatory than educational," says James, who is white. "They should toss it."

For starters, James and commission chairman Jeff Dunn say the text contains numerous "historical" passages that are not backed up by any source and text that goes beyond factual error. James says while her organization painstakingly searches for documentation to back up even the smallest historical fact before committing it to paper as a source of reference, the schoolbooks have statements that aren't backed up by anything except maybe an author or editor's personal opinion.

For instance, the booklet says cemetery land was given to Dallas blacks "because it was unfit for farming," and that the city designated the Freedman's Town area as "a safe place for African Americans to live after the Emancipation Proclamation."

Frances says for one thing, nothing shows that the area was unfit for farming. What's more, she says, she has records that show the original cemetery site was not "given" away by the city or anyone else. Records show that the land for the cemetery was purchased. Besides that, the area was outside the Dallas city limits, which meant that the city had neither the right to give the land away nor to designate it as a "safe place" for blacks.

"The truth is, the one acre of land first used as a cemetery was purchased by Sam Eakins, a trustee for the Freedman's Grave Yard on April 29, 1869," James wrote officials. "This was included when Ordinance No. 21203 was passed by the City Council."

Blacks did not settle in Freedman's Town because the city said it was safe, James says. More likely, blacks settled in the area by default after the cemetery was started. Segregation policies restricted blacks to "black enclaves," a state study of Freedman's Town says. James says she does not understand why the school booklet's author would not have referred to the documented record.

The author, Allison Neal, says the city's cultural affairs office gave her a packet of material that described the history of the Freedman's Cemetery and adjacent community. She drew her information about the site solely from that packet. Besides, she says, the text she produced was reviewed and approved by city and school officials.

"I didn't get that information or make it up on my own," she says. "It was in the material that I had."

The packet that Neal supposedly used as the basis for the workbook is still on file at the cultural affairs office. It contains no references to land being given away, and nothing says the land was deemed unfit for farming. In fact, the packet contained the historical commission's landmark nomination form that says Sam Eakins bought the land just like James says. Neal says that if errors have now come to light, then those same officials who reviewed her text are in the position to make corrections if they believe it is appropriate.

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