“There are so many newcomers to Dallas and they don’t know the history,” Dallas Observer editor in chief Joe Pappalardo said Monday, during a panel discussion for the "Observing Our Legacy" lecture series inspired by the life of J.L. Turner Sr., one of Texas' first black attorneys. Pappalardo explored Turner's life in a cover story in March. "And people who have lived here their whole lives may not know it, either."
A discussion of the legacy of J.L. Turner quickly exemplified why this city isn’t always so gung-ho about looking back. It showed how much times have changed. And it proved we can handle looking at ourselves in the rearview mirror, even if we sometimes don't like what we see.
A crowd made up mostly of lawyers and law school students gathered for the discussion at the Belo Mansion, the historic catering venue named after Colonel Alfred Horatio Belo, a veteran of the Confederate States Army.
The series honoring Turner, who was born in Dallas in 1869 to a father who had been a slave, was put on by the J.L. Turner Legal Association (JLTLA). After a warm welcome from current JLTLA president Emmanuel Obi, Dallas Bar Association (DBA) president Jerry Alexander made special remarks. Alexander said that his time was limited to three minutes. He added that this was significant because the DBA president was permitted to speak for three minutes at Turner’s funeral service in December of 1951.
In 1951, African-Americans were not allowed to be in the DBA. The very next year, the JLTA was formed by a group of African-American attorneys, largely in response to this exclusion. Speaking at Turner’s funeral service back in 1951 must have been awkward for the president of the DBA then.
But this did not seem lost on Alexander. He showed incredible grace in three minutes flat. Starting with a prayer, Alexander spoke of a joint membership drive between the DBA and JLTA. “Our associations are going to get closer and stronger as time goes on,” Alexander said.
He then mentioned the first time he heard about Turner. In 1977, Alexander was a young lawyer working with a firm, distraught about a case involving a title company. Another lawyer said it was a shame that J.L. Turner Sr. was no longer around before explaining why he had been the best title lawyer in Dallas.
“We’re all lawyers,” Alexander said, in closing. “And Turner was a great lawyer.”
Attorney John G. Browning gave a lecture called History of the African-American Lawyer. He described Dallas as it existed when Turner set up shop at 155 Main St. back in 1898. Some African-American lawyers were murdered. In court, judges would refer to African-American lawyers by their first names, or even address them as “boy.”
“This was a time when being an African-American attorney was a novelty,” Browning said. “It was newsworthy. The local newspapers would write front page articles about a lawyer appearing in court who happened to be an African-American.” He also noted that the papers often used far more racist and condescending terms.
Were there any particular newspapers he was talking about? Alfred Horatio Belo founded a paper in 1885 and it still runs today, although it has changed quite a bit.
“[Turner]’s a different type of civil rights hero,” said Pappalardo. “People like him built that foundation of successful African Americans in the face of the worst racial tension you could imagine in Dallas.”
George Keeton Jr., founder of Remembering Black Dallas and grandnephew of J.L. Turner Sr., was part of the discussion. Turner died almost exactly five years before he was born, but he offered intimate details he gathered from family members, photographs and letters.
There were many people packed into that room in the historic Belo Mansion. The doors even had to be opened at one point to let in some air. As Dallas history was revisited, Former JLTLA president Paul Stafford was the only person who seemed to show some anger.
“Straight talk may make you choke on your water. But as you go into your next 64 years, as a group we have to figure out what has changed and what has not. There’s a broken window in this building that is metaphoric and actual," Stafford said. "We’re 64 years down the road and we still have some things that need to be addressed like it was in 1952.”