His honor

People don't talk politics at most funerals, out of respect for the dead. But on the steps outside Munger Place United Methodist Church after former Dallas Mayor Wallace Savage's recent funeral and again half an hour later at a reception at his home, intense little circles debated who may run next for mayor of Dallas and what's really going on with the Trinity River project. Savage, 87, who was mayor from 1949 to 1951, died at home on June 19 following a battle with pneumonia. Far from disrespect, the political conversation at his funeral was an implied recognition of the role Savage and his wife, Dorothy, played in the true infrastructure of Dallas--the structure of ideas and principles that underlie the city's physical shape.

The Savages (his wife of 58 years died last August) were an original link with many deep-running issues that still churn the city's heart today. On a recent Saturday afternoon, while people stood in the dining room of the Savage home on Swiss Avenue eating finger food and debating upcoming engineering studies for the Trinity River, a visitor reflected privately that these same issues had been debated in Wallace Savage's dining room on Swiss Avenue a half century before. In 1950, when Savage was the 37-year-old mayor of Dallas, the same land-holding interests who are pushing for a massive public-works project on the Trinity River today were behind an earlier, even more ambitious version.

At that time, the river-bottom families, especially the Stemmons clan for whom freeways and industrial districts are now named, were maneuvering to snag some $105 million from the federal government in flood-control and "slum clearance" money. It was a phenomenal sum. According to federal historical statistics published in 1975 by the U.S. Government Printing Office, that much money in 1950 dollars is equivalent to $713 million in today's dollars.

And that sum did not include the vast additional amounts the federal government poured directly into the Stemmons industrial corridor later in the 1950s in the form of highway construction. In the late 1940s and early 1950s when Savage was mayor, intense excitement, not to say violent greed, was aroused by the prospect of this king's ransom in federal tax dollars, all of which would go directly to improve the value of near-worthless land along the Trinity River bottoms.

But there was an inconvenient barrier to the deal: Harsh segregation laws had forced African-American families to settle on flood-prone bottomland along the river. Some black neighborhoods would be flooded out by the project debated in 1950. An even bigger problem in the eyes of the project's backers was that new levees would make other black-owned land suddenly much more valuable--too valuable to be owned by black people.

The answer to this dilemma was the creation of the vast public housing projects of West Dallas. Using eminent domain, federal money, and new slum-clearance laws (called "Negro removal" laws behind closed doors), Dallas ultimately removed whole black neighborhoods from the newly valuable land along the river and pushed the residents into public housing instead.

An aspect now lost to most published histories of the city is that the black families who had lived in the cholera- and typhus-ridden slums of Dallas, however tough their lives may have been, were upwardly mobile. Many of them had come to the city from the depopulating countryside with nothing. Using money saved from meager wages, they had bought plots of land and built cabins. They were homeowners. The slums of Eagle Ford and Mill Creek were their bitter, hard-fought handhold on the cliffs of the American dream.

All of that was taken from them in the early 1950s by government fiat in a plan to use tax money to finance the fortunes of a few Dallas families. Dallas, a hotbed of anti-Communist fervor at the time, had hit on a municipal scheme that must have earned it a hearty thumbs-up from Joe Stalin.

But not all of Dallas. There was always a certain community of conscience. John W. Carpenter, then president of the Dallas Chamber of Commerce (and for whom a freeway also is named), publicly tongue-lashed the levee gang for taking people's homes away by decree: "I personally don't think it's right to condemn homesteads and resell them again," Carpenter said in 1950. "If I were one of the people who had a home, even one of the so-called shotgun variety, I would be heartbroken if it were taken away from me by force."

These debates took place against a backdrop of organized dynamite bombings of black families who had managed, under new court decisions, to buy houses in the city's new working-class subdivisions. In 1950, a special "blue ribbon" grand jury issued a vaguely worded report on the bombings suggesting broadly that white church groups in Dallas had conspired to hire the bombers and pick targets, but the grand jury refused to release any details of its findings.

In this atmosphere of life-and-death racial tension and brutal economic pressure, Wallace Savage walked an interesting moral line. He didn't oppose the huge public-works campaigns that made the city's later growth possible: In fact, he championed them. But Savage insisted there were rules of underlying moral decency that the white community would have to honor. He campaigned successfully to end one of Jim Crow's nastier traditions, the racial segregation of ambulances, which too often meant injured black people lay dying on the road while white ambulances whizzed by. He struggled bravely against the sheer hideousness of conditions in the most overcrowded slums, leading gaggles of nervous white reporters to the places in the city where people drank from common water barrels and eliminated into holes in the ground. He fought for a concept so basic, it's probably difficult now for some people to imagine the need: Savage insisted that the police department enforce the law in black neighborhoods, not merely on black neighborhoods.

Since this was a time when the police department was probably implicated in the bombings of black families, Savage's position was especially courageous. In later years, Savage and his wife were champions of the historic preservation movement in Dallas, engaged in pitched battles with the city's development interests in the 1970s and '80s. Dorothy Savage in particular is generally credited with leading the movement to save the Swiss Avenue area from the wrecker's ball, creating a model for the several preservation neighborhoods that have been established in Dallas in the last 20 years.

At Swiss Avenue and Bryan Street, in a small park named for them, a stone obelisk commemorates the role the Savages played in shaping the Dallas of today. Throughout his career and life, Wallace Savage projected a certain jaunty energy and wit that somehow made his very independent views go down easier than if he had been a more preachy or judgmental man. His daughter, Virginia Savage McAlester, gave an example recently in explaining an old black-and-white photograph from the '50s, showing the mayor with a gang of kids on a merry-go-round in the slums of West Dallas. The children had been spinning the mayor around on the merry-go-round with a certain vengeance.

"He told them if they let him off, he would give them all a ride," McAlester said. When the children stopped the merry-go-round, the mayor hopped off and walked away. The children ran after him, asking why he wasn't giving them the ride he had promised. His daughter said, "My father told them he was teaching them one of life's most important lessons. 'Children,' he said, 'don't ever trust a politician.'"

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze