Knights' Tale

Another historic emblem of black Dallas stands on the brink

The building's fate will arrive soon enough: In two years, DART will open its Green Line rail extension in Deep Ellum, and a new station will open footsteps away from the temple. Trains will unleash the hustlers and bustlers into a Deep Ellum that will welcome them with open arms. But what will those visitors find in 2009? Restored remnants of Dallas' vanishing history or the brand-new shiny future that has erased the footsteps of giants?

The sole remaining copy of the Business and Professional Directory of Colored Persons in Dallas, published in 1911, resides with the Dallas Historical Society. In its preface, its publisher celebrates the "substantial progress among material lines" made by "the American Negro" in the past quarter-century. He cites Booker T. Washington as an inspiration—his autobiography, Up From Slavery, was published only 10 years earlier.

Writes the publisher: "The Dallas Negro, catching the spirit of the times, has gone forth into the marts of trade and sought, with more or less success, to win a place and to make himself and his race a potent factor in the commercial life of his city." That business directory also reveals just how widely scattered black-owned businesses were throughout the city in the days before Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan's rise to political power in Dallas by the mid-1920s. Says Govenar, who co-authored the essential Deep Ellum and Central Track: Where the Black and White Worlds of Dallas Converged with Jay Brakefield, Dallas back then "had a rapidly growing African-American middle-class."

The Deep Ellum Enrichment Project is concerned that the temple has become a victim of "demolition by neglect."
The Deep Ellum Enrichment Project is concerned that the temple has become a victim of "demolition by neglect."
Katherine Seale (left), executive director of Preservation Dallas, spoke last week to D.E.E.P. about the temple, its state and its significance.
Katherine Seale (left), executive director of Preservation Dallas, spoke last week to D.E.E.P. about the temple, its state and its significance.

It was to that Dallas William Sidney Pittman brought his family in 1913. He knew well the teaching of Booker T. Washington: Pittman was his son-in-law, having married his daughter Portia—a classically trained pianist who'd studied in Europe—on October 31, 1907, at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which Washington founded in 1881. An account of their wedding, found amongst Washington's papers at the University of Illinois, describes the ceremony as "the chief social event of the year...simple and impressive in its dignity."

Up till now it's been written that Pittman was born in Montgomery, Alabama, on April 21, 1875, to former slaves. In truth, he was the illegitimate son of a white lawyer. According to recently discovered prison records from the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas—where Pittman was confined from February 1937 to February 1939—the man he knew as his father, a butcher named Henry Pittman who died when William was 4, was actually his stepfather. Years later, his son, Booker T. Pittman, a jazz musician who settled in Brazil, confirmed it to a biographer: "His father was white," Booker said in a 1984 book published in Portuguese. And his mother, Sarah Baskins, "[was] mulatto," said Booker. "He took after his father in color."

Little is known about Pittman till he attended Tuskegee Institute, from which he graduated in 1897. At Tuskegee, Washington took a liking to Pittman and arranged for him to attend Drexel Institute in Philadelphia, where, according to a November 11, 1897, letter Pittman wrote to Washington, he studied "Architecture, Mechanical Drawing, Freehand drawing, water coloring, charcoal work...descript and plane Algebra, History, Gymnastics." Washington even helped pay for his schooling and living expenses, and Pittman left Drexel in 1900 with a degree in architectural drawing. He returned to Tuskegee to teach and pay back his mentor. He would also provide the blueprints for two buildings erected on the Tuskegee campus in 1907.

Drexel's archives record that Pittman left Tuskegee in 1905 after a salary dispute. He moved to Washington, D.C., and worked for a black architect named John Lankford. Months later Pittman had his own firm, and late in 1906, Drexel's Pittman Web page reads, "he entered and won the competition to design the Negro Building at the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition." (It has since been demolished, as have many of Pittman's 38 known commissions.) A year later, he married Portia and began his brief, glorious career as an architect, designing the Garfield Elementary Public School and the 12th Street Y.M.C.A. in the District of Columbia. According to African American Architects, President Theodore Roosevelt placed the cornerstone in the Y.M.C.A. building in 1908. Pittman, only three years into his career, was already a giant.

He, Portia and their growing family moved to Dallas in 1913; Pittman received several commissions in Texas, chief among them the temple for the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal organization formally established in the 1860s. Pittman was hired by the Knights' "colored" fraternity, which began around 1875. According to state records, in June 1911 the Grand Lodge of the Colored Knights of Pythias of Grand Jurisdiction of Texas bought from Tom Angus a plot of land on Elm Street. The Knights paid Angus $10,666. In 1913, the Pythians announced the land was to be the home of its "State Pythian Temple."

In 1915, the lodge filed with the city Building Permit No. 376, for a "4 story brick lodge building" to be constructed on Elm Street. Walton Construction Co. was the contractor, using Pittman's plans. City records show the cost of the building, the Pythians' Texas headquarters, as $736, which, say several local historians, can't be right.

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