By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
It opened in 1916 and housed Dallas' first black dentist and first black surgeon, among many other professionals for whom the temple was a godsend. Lawyers and accountants (including former Dallas City Council member Al Lipscomb's grandfather) worked out of the building, as did the few insurance companies that would sell policies to blacks. There was a barbershop, and black high schools and colleges held their graduation ceremonies and dances in the grand fourth-floor ballroom, its arched windows providing a spectacular view of the burgeoning downtown.
Eighty-one-year-old Louis Bedford, among the first black judges from Dallas appointed to the federal bench, recalls going to dances at the Pythian Temple after he graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in 1942 and during his time at Prairie View A&M University. Long before that, his grandfather had been the Pythians' grand secretary, with an office in the building.
"Very few people who are acquainted with the building are in existence," Bedford says. "Most are passed on. People who are in their 40s, 50s , 60s have no recollection of that building. They just saw it as a building the insurance company used. It's a shame."
But all you really need to know is this: "The building at 2551 Elm remains the only commercial structure in Dallas built for blacks, by blacks, with black money," the Dallas Times Herald noted in 1986. Today, says Whit Meyers, former owner of the Gypsy Tea Room, which sat directly across from the Pythian Temple: "That building, more than any other in Deep Ellum, is a flagship, an icon, a symbol."
William Sidney Pittman would design other buildings around town—most notably, the St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church, which still stands as an office building on Good-Latimer Expressway—but he didn't get much work after the temple's completion. Ruth Stewart, a professor at New York University and the biographer of Portia Pittman in 1977, always believed that was because whites weren't comfortable using a black architect, and blacks with money hired white architects.
But it was more than that: Pittman could be mean to strangers and to his own family.
"From his mother he inherited that primitive discipline, giving severe punishments," Booker Pittman recounted in the 1984 book. "Beatings and whippings which lasted until he was exhausted and we children [were] left semi-conscious. Later on, as we grew older, my brother Sidney, the oldest, and my sister, the youngest, and myself decided to give father the characteristic title of 'Big Pitt.' Physically he wasn't a big man, but he had the headstrong, disciplined personality."
That personality forced Portia Pittman, a beloved music instructor at the high school named for her father, to leave her husband in 1928.
A year later, Pittman embarked upon his second career: publisher and writer of the newspaper Brotherhood Eyes, known as "a newspaper that doesn't cross the color line." It read like Hunter Thompson filtered through an alto sax. It was ahead of its time by decades in its content and use of language ("A gang of cake starters hung around her house day and night, piano playing half the night and all the day long and such bumping and thumping").
It contained "serious and frivolous news items of Negro life in Dallas," and often featured stories about shootings, hidden "love nests" and other scandals reported back to him by his Eye-spies across the state and throughout the South. At the cost of a nickel, the paper was a must-read in the black community: "I can remember people saying, 'I'm gonna buy me a copy of the Brotherhood Eyes,'" says Judge Bedford. But it would also serve as Pittman's undoing.
On January 11, 1937, a federal grand jury in Dallas indicted Pittman on charges of using the U.S. mail to distribute material it considered "obscene, lewd, lascivious and of an indecent character." A month later, when Pittman was 61, he was tried in Dallas' federal court. In an affidavit provided to the court, now residing at the Dallas Public Library, postal inspector C.W.B. Long described Pittman as "the brainiest and shrewdest negro who I have met" during his 30 years in Texas. But "the publication of 'Brotherhood Eyes' was doubly insidious in that its resourceful owner and publisher under the guise of uplifting his race was further cleverly demoralizing it."
In February 1937 he was found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison; he served two. Upon entry to Leavenworth, he was considered by officials there as "emotionally adequate," according to prison records. But Portia would later tell prison officials that "he had become so bitter against his own people [and] seemed to resent the fact many negroes, who built homes at Tuskegee, did not employ him in the construction of their homes. Apparently, it was for this reason that he began his publication in an effort to injure his people as much as possible." His wife said William had become "unbalanced." By July 1938, Pittman was working in the prison library, and his cellmates were demanding he be moved to another cell because he was "very filthy."
Upon his release in 1939, Pittman came back to Dallas, his family long gone and his friends wanting nothing to do with him. He bounced around town for years but was seldom heard from or seen. According to his death certificate, he died on March 14, 1958, of an apparent stroke. He was buried in an unmarked grave at Glen Oaks Cemetery on Hatcher Street; his funeral cost $460, for which others would have to pay, as Pittman was penniless. He would not get a proper grave marker till 1985, thanks to the Dallas Historical Society and John Wiley Price's efforts.