Laff in the Dark

Wouldn't you know. All the time I criticize the Dallas City Council and say they've screwed up, and they get mad at me because they think they're doing such a damn stellar job. So last week I walk out of a city council session thinking for once they really did do a great job. And they're mad at me, calling me an idiot because they say they screwed up.

I'm going to see a doctor. They must have put my head on just before a major holiday. I just can't possibly be this wrong all the time.

But I thought they were wonderful. It was a heart-warming show. I walked out humming the overture. It was that good. I think. I haven't seen the doctor yet.

The debate was whether to pay one big subsidy to two white schools and another one to two traditionally black colleges in order to keep two popular football games at the Cotton Bowl. According to my digital recorder, the Dallas City Council devoted two hours, eight minutes and 13.5 seconds to this matter.

During that time they accused each other of infamous perfidy, scurrilous villainy, racism, fraud, parliamentary infraction, legislative inaction, mental inelasticity, patronizing didacticity and being dumb. Then they joined hands and voted unanimously in favor of the subsidies.

Wonderful speeches were made--heartfelt, from the gut, sharp, moving, to the quick. They threatened. They pleaded. They grudgingly gave in.

I will fill you in, of course, on the details. But we need two important pieces of background. The first has to do with the history of the State Fair of Texas as a sharp stick in the eye of black Dallas.

Anybody black in Dallas whose family has been here more than 50 years knows all about "Nigger Day." Throughout the 1930s and '40s, that was the one day African-American families were allowed to attend the State Fair of Texas. And that's what it was called.

Even though it was the "state" fair, the fair was tightly dominated by the white Dallas hierarchy. Black leaders from all over Texas brought pressure on the Dallas white leadership to eliminate the ugly practice of Nigger Day.

In the early 1950s, Dallas leaders, always trying to cut a deal, renamed it "Negro Achievement Day." Didn't wash. Black people continued to bring pressure for open admissions to the fair.

In 1953 Dallas white leaders offered a new deal: open admissions during the full run of the fair, except that black people were barred from the midway and restaurants except on Negro Achievement Day.

Dallas black leaders thought this was an adequate deal. It was left to an NAACP chapter in faraway Brownwood to sue and force final desegregation of the midway and eating establishments.

But even when black people finally were admitted to the midway and restaurants, Dallas leaders, headed by banker R.L. Thornton, insisted that two particular rides on the midway--"Laff in the Dark" and "Dodge 'em Scooter"--could never be and would never be desegregated. Those two rides involved the possibility of actual bodily contact between white and black persons. The two rides stayed segregated at least through the 1960s, possibly into the 1970s.

So we think what? Black people are going to forget this stuff? If anything, the politics and culture of old Dallas, black and white, is a contorted tangle of all those strange "Laff in the Dark" and "Dodge 'em Scooter" memories. The white folks and black folks who have been around Dallas all that time have one thing in common: Neither side can make up its mind if desegregation was a good thing. It's all painful and unresolved.

Witness this fact: Last week's council session began with a long, emotional tribute to former school board member Kathlyn Gilliam, who is black. Gilliam was lauded by African-American city Councilman Leo Chaney as the woman who defeated school busing in Dallas.

Ummm, maybe take a sec' on that one. Black leader. Longtime activist. Honored for defeating busing. Now she's getting a plaque for it. And no one prouder of her than the black community.

Just in from Chicago? My advice: Forget trying to figure this out. It's Dallas. It's weird. Just be careful what you say.

The matter of Mr. Chaney brings us to the other key element of background I need to fill you in on. In the weeks leading up to last week's battle over subsidies for the football games at the State Fair, Chaney, it seems, ran a serious scam on the rest of the council--the white and Latino members, anyway.

And, by the way, I have tried for two weeks to get Chaney to return my calls on this, and he won't do it. I'm disappointed. He has always called me in the past. I'm sure he has his own version. I like him. But in the absence of a rebuttal and after running this by several of his colleagues on the council, I have to say he comes across in this chapter as scam artist of the month.