Fight Over Dallas' Racial Past Goes Wide of the Real Target

There are certain realities about race and segregation that Dallas just has a very hard time facing up to.
There are certain realities about race and segregation that Dallas just has a very hard time facing up to.
Banksy in the South Bronx by Scott Lynch via Flickr

In a dispute over historic markers for segregated parks in Dallas, nobody seems  able to hit the broad side of the barn. Of course, that's because nobody will look at the barn. Last week a local foundation decided to duck. If they're smart, they're hiding in the barn.

Dallas Morning News columnist Norma Adams Wade and two conceptual artists, Cynthia Mulcahy and Lauren Woods, are campaigning for marker texts for these parks that would provide a full telling of the parks’ role in the city’s history. That role can’t be conveyed, they believe, except in the full context of segregation.

Two foundations, one set up by Container Store co-founder Garrett Boone and his wife, the other by the late Richard Rainwater, a Fort Worth investor, originally underwrote research by the two artists. Last week after Woods told the Dallas Park Board that the foundations and other original backers of the marker project were censoring the marker texts, the Boone Family Foundation withdrew its support.

A few days before the Park Board meeting, Melissa Repko had a story in The Dallas Morning News setting the scene and laying out a basic map of the players and their positions.  After the meeting, Peter Simek posted a post-mortem on D Magazine's Frontburner online, which I especially liked because it provided a copy of all of the competing marker texts. As your faithful correspondent I have stolen those and reproduced them below as if I thought of it.

Reading and rereading all of them on Sunday afternoon was for me sort of an exercise in read-it-and-weep. The real pathos was not in the stories told but the story untold.

The first alarm bell for me was the casting of the Boone Family Foundation in the role of arrogant white censor. And forgive me, but I know me some arrogant white censors. In 1986 I had a book literally ripped off the presses at the behest of the Dallas Citizens Council because somebody thought it was going to tell too much truth about the city’s racial past.

Boone and his wife, Cecilia, just don’t fit the part of book-rippers. Their foundation has been a progressive and leavening influence on the city, especially on environmental questions.  Look, we white people of a certain age — all of us — had to endure some painful and humbling self-discovery in order to escape the limitations of our upbringings. If you want to hear a truly eloquent description of that process, listen to Garrett Boone here.   

On the other hand, if can agree to talk about all white people, not just them, then, yes, we white folks do tend to view the universe through the drinking straw of our own experience. Too often the white drinking straw either never gets pointed toward the black experience at all or doesn't stay focused long enough to see the details.

And you know about details. That’s where the devil lives. The texts that Wade, Mulcahy and Woods have offered for the parks are rich in the kind of suggestive detail that colors in the story for us. The fact that these parks and the segregated neighborhoods around them were built in floodplains, for example, is the merest polite hint of an environmental atrocity that verged on genocide all across America.

The desire of a white developer to buy acreage as a “buffer” between his own white development and a proposed black park was an expression not merely of the physical loathing that was part and parcel of segregation but also of its primitive fearfulness. That empty land was to serve as a ritualistic purification zone.

If you will read the marker texts that the foundations wanted the park department to adopt, you will see that almost all of that excruciatingly evocative detail is scrubbed. The foundation texts do talk about segregation. But they describe it in the flat matter-of-fact monotone that one might expect in a learned discussion of Ukrainian grain export policy. It doesn't sound racist, but it does sound corporate.

Racial segregation was not flat, monotone or in any way dignified. It was angry, violent and very crazy. And I’m afraid that’s where I take leave of Wade and the artists as well.

To tell a unique and truthful story about the racial past of Dallas — as opposed to the racial past of Atlanta or Selma or Birmingham – we must tell the story of black resistance to the civil rights movement in Dallas. It’s not the whole story. In Dallas there were brave black leaders who risked their lives and went to prison fighting segregation. But it's what makes Dallas different.

Based on my own years of researching and writing about these issues, I believe the difference here goes all the way back into slavery, comes forward through Reconstruction, the Klan, Jim Crow, the South Dallas bombings of the 1950s and is all about white terrorism. But I’m not an academic historian or a true authority. It’s an open question.

The fact remains that the Dallas black community, led by its clergy, turned its back on much of the civil rights movement in the period from 1954 to 1968 when the movement was led mainly by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. That friction grew out of what Zan Wesley Holmes, pastor emeritus of St. Luke Community United Methodist Church, has described as a “denominational split” within the black church.

Before there was MLK Jr. there was his father, MLK Sr., who spearheaded the fight for “assimilation,” an earlier term for integration, in denominational battles fought within the black religious community nationally. Dallas was a center of the opposition to King Sr.

Holmes has offered that dispute as an explanation for the cold shoulder many black ministers gave King Jr., on the few occasions when he came to town during the movement years. And while that may help explain it, the important thing to know is that the shoulder was cold.

Let me skip ahead here and try to explain a little of how this may relate to the marker controversy. On the positive side, the various texts offered by Norma Adams Wade and by Mulcahy and Woods are beautifully told. On the negative side, they are beautifully told.

There was nothing beautiful about racial segregation. Its vicious legacy is all around us today in the staggering poverty and deprivation that still define too many of the city’s racially segregated neighborhoods. But more to the point, a special poison can be worked on events today by the legend of a grand halcyon era when black people had their own baseball teams and beauty pageants and there were no whites around to worry about. There are always whites around to worry about. The only difference is whether you can see them or not.

So if the devil is in the details, what detail can I find to make my point in the marker texts offered by Wade and the artists? I think it’s the one detail repeated in all of the texts. They all include some version of this language:

“The City of Dallas never officially made racial segregation a law in public parks, however, conventions of dominant culture were rigid enough to enforce and privilege ‘White only’ use of public facilities.”

Segregation here needed no Jim Crow law to support it, as it did in the Old South. They didn't even have to say it.  And yet the testimony of black people of that era has been that segregation here was more raw, more humiliating and more dangerous than in the Old South. Whatever the causes may have been, the result was a degree of black acquiescence.

It was never total acquiescence. Black bus passengers overturned their buses and set them on fire in Dallas in the 1950s in fights over seat segregation. But those were the rare eruptions that told how painful the day-to-day acquiescence had to be during the rest of the time.

The artists have said that the foundations didn’t like their texts because they dwelled too much on racial matters, which would be funny, if this were funny — historic markers that dwell too much on history.  But this dispute is about race, human beings and human destiny, so it’s not funny.

If anything, the markers don’t dwell enough on race. They don’t tell enough of the ugliness and injustice. And why, you might ask, should we dwell? Isn’t it just a bunch of bad memory we can do nothing about? Shouldn’t we get over it and, in that favorite phrase of our times, just move on?

But the danger is not in the memory alone. It’s in what people think now about the world all around us. If we think integration was a scam, if we think black people had it a lot better in Dallas when they owned their own parks and held their own beauty pageants, then we think the challenge of today is some kind of restoration. We think the goal is to build a better ghetto, like that wonderful ghetto we’ve talked ourselves into believing we used to have. 

I wonder sometimes if that ill-begotten delusion may not still be with us. Is it the reason why there is no support among black elected officials for affordable housing north of Interstate 30? I believe the sheer insularity of Southern Dallas has been a major factor in the fight over school reform. 

A last qualification or caveat: the suburbs all around Dallas — north, south, east and west — are full of successful upwardly mobile black families who do not intend to live or raise their kids in anybody’s spruced-up racially segregated ghetto. We’re not talking about all black people here. We are talking about a subset in southern Dallas.

Not surprisingly, southern Dallas has learned over difficult decades to shield itself with the thick hide of a resilient culture. The problem is that times have changed and now that hide may be a suffocation.

In the marker fight, everybody is trying to get it right. The marker texts offered by the foundations unwittingly express a certain culture of white people in which it’s considered pretty darned daring even to admit there ever was a thing called segregation.

Answer: not daring. Not enough. Keep working on it. Maybe next: There really was a thing called slavery.

Norma Adams Wade is a revered icon who had to fight hard over the decades for the ability to render the black reality on the pages of a very conservative white daily newspaper. It’s double-cool that in her golden years she is still fighting the good fight.

The two artists, Woods and Mulcahy, are geniuses. They have chosen just the right window to bring the light.

But we need an even bigger window. Dallas is not exactly like the other cities of the South. Things were different here. Things still are different here. We need to know why. It’s like a map on a jigsaw puzzle jumbled in front of is. We need to put that puzzle together, because it’s the only map we will ever find to tomorrow.

Why should we be shy about the truth? What are we, a bunch of history wimps? C’mon. Let’s get this done. All of it.

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