The Tenth Street Historic District was established by the city in the early ’90s. Freed slaves began to occupy the area in East Oak Cliff after the Civil War. Many of them were likely former slaves of William Brown Miller, a prominent Dallas cotton farmer. Some of them are buried in a section of the Oak Cliff Cemetery that sits in the heart of the neighborhood on East Eighth Street.
Today, the district is often referred to as the most intact freedman's town in the country. It's likely the only such one with an intact slave burial ground, according to Robert Swann, who owns a house in Tenth Street and is the landmark commissioner for this part of town, Dallas City Council District 4. He spends a lot of time at the cemetery trying to maintain it the best he can.
Swann has become increasingly interested in the history of the freedman's town since he started fixing up a house in the neighborhood about 15 years ago.
Swann was working at the Oak Cliff Cemetery the morning of one of the fires. He got to the cemetery around 11 a.m. on Friday Jan. 27. “I smelled smoke almost immediately when I got out of my car,” he said. Swann left the cemetery to find where the smell was coming from. Eventually, he saw a Dallas Fire-Rescue (DFR) firefighter on the roof of 1225 Boswell St. A fire had started and spread from the house next door. Swann said the house fire seemed to have been extinguished, but flames continued spewing from a gas meter between the two houses. DFR was able to extinguish the remaining fires after the gas was turned off, but the two houses were left with significant damages.
Seven days earlier, the house at 1014 Betterton Circle caught fire. About a month before that, the same happened to the house at 1414 E. Clarendon Drive, leaving behind a lot full of trash. A house at 1023 Church St. also caught fire recently.
There are plenty of possible causes for these fires. Some of the houses in the neighborhood are abandoned and become occupied by homeless people, some of whom may start open fires in the houses or tamper with a nearby gas line for warmth. But whenever there’s a fire in the Tenth Street Historic District, Swann said, people in the neighborhood suspect arson. Swann said he wasn’t speaking for the landmark commission and his comments about the fires and their cause are completely speculative.
“I smelled smoke almost immediately when I got out of my car." – Robert Swann, Dallas Landmark Commissiontweet this
People often suggest that fires in the neighborhood might be economically motivated, he said, and that the people behind them just don’t want to deal with restrictions surrounding historic structures like the homes in Tenth Street. “That’s probably all I should say about that,” Swann said. “I’m not alleging this.”
Larry Johnson, a part-time resident in the neighborhood, said he believes the fire at 1023 Church St. was accidentally started by homeless people staying in the house. But, when asked about the others, he’s certain they were set intentionally. “Those [fires] were set on purpose,” Johnson said. He thinks someone used the natural gas line to try to burn down the houses on Boswell Street. “It was intentionally done,” Johnson said. “You don’t access gas lines on accident on a house that’s been vacant for as long as I’ve been involved, which is well over five years.”
Johnson is a member of the Tenth Street Residential Association and a representative on the Tenth Street task force for the landmark commission.
Investigators have yet to determine the cause of the fires, Jason Evans, a DFR spokesperson, told the Observer. Here’s what the fire department knows about the fires.
Around 8 p.m. on Dec. 26, DFR responded to a 911 call about a structure fire at 1414 E. Clarendon Drive. When firefighters arrived, the house was engulfed in flames. “Firefighters initiated an offensive attack on the house and had the flames extinguished within an hour after arriving on scene,” Evans said. “Thankfully, there was no one at the house at the time of the fire, so there were no injuries reported.”
“While investigators believe the fire began in, on or around the rear of the home, they were unable to rule out multiple potential ignition sources,” Evans said. “Therefore the cause of the fire is listed as undetermined.”
Less than a month later, DFR would respond to another 911 call about a structure fire in the neighborhood. Firefighters arrived at 1014 Betterton Circle around 1:30 a.m. on Jan. 20 to find the vacant one-story structure fully engulfed in flames, which resulted in "fire suppression efforts going defensive early on,” Evans said. The fire was extinguished less than a half hour later. Evans said neighbors reported homeless people frequently going in and out of the house, but no one was there when firefighters showed up.
One neighbor said they heard a popping noise outside, and when they got up to look the house was already on fire. DFR investigators believe the fire started along the back of the house and spread upward and laterally in both directions. This damaged most of the structure and the exterior paneling of the home next door. “There were no injuries reported as a result of this fire, and the cause is undetermined due to investigators’ inability to detect multiple possible sources of ignition,” Evans said.
A week passed before the houses on Boswell Street caught fire. DFR showed up around 11 a.m. on Jan. 27, responding to a 911 call about a structure fire at 1223 Boswell St. When firefighters arrived, they saw flames coming from the side window of the home. “In fact, the flames were so intense that they caused significant exposure damage to the neighboring home, at 1225 Boswell St.,” Evans said. Inside 1223 Boswell, DFR found a fire in a bedroom along the side of the house. Firefighters were able to extinguish the house fire pretty quickly, but flames continued spewing from the gas meter between the two homes. This continued to cause damage to the houses until Oncor turned off the gas.
Seven people live at 1223 Boswell St., but only three were home when the fire began, Evans said. All made it out safely, but one was taken to a local hospital after being exposed to smoke from the fire. The two people who live in 1225 Boswell weren’t home at the time of the fire. The American Red Cross was called out to help all the affected residents.
Evans said investigators were told that one of the residents at 1223 Boswell St. smelled smoke coming from one of the bedrooms. When they went to check on it, they found the fire. The resident tried to put out the fire but it got out of control and everyone left the house.
“Investigators believe the fire began in the reported bedroom then spread vertically and horizontally throughout the home, leaving behind significant damage,” Evans said. “After interviews with occupants and witnesses, in addition to documenting evidence within the remnants, fire investigators were unable to rule out multiple possible ignition sources. Therefore, the cause of the fire is listed as undetermined.”
Swann doesn’t believe the fires were intentionally set. Either way, historic pieces of the neighborhood have been destroyed. That’s nothing new for the Tenth Street Historic District, Swann said.
“People, when they talk about why Tenth Street matters, why it’s significant, they point to its degree of intactness,” Swann said. “During all that time when they’ve been touting the intactness of Tenth Street as to why it matters, houses have been demolished and a lot of the demolitions were city-initiated and city-sponsored.”
In 2019, Legal Aid of Northwest Texas and the Tenth Street Residential Association sued the city, claiming it was demolishing homes in the neighborhood at a disproportionate rate, according to Oak Cliff Advocate. Between 1993, when Dallas designated the area a historic district, and 2017, the city demolished at least 72 houses in Tenth Street, the suit claimed.
“Those [fires] were set on purpose." – Larry Johnson, Tenth Street Historic District residenttweet this
“The City has not demolished houses at this rate or magnitude in any historic district that preserves white history,” the suit said.
It also said the infrastructure in Tenth Street, like the roads, sewage and storm drainage, has been neglected by the city when compared with other historic districts.
“I think it is foolish to let the significance of the Tenth Street Freedman’s Town rest upon its degree of intactness because that degree of intactness has been constantly eroded by fires, by demolitions, by neglect, by all of these things,” he said.
One day soon, Swann and Johnson hope to see a change.
“So often something like this happens and it’s just more bad news for Tenth Street,” Swann said. “It is true that Tenth Street faces a lot of challenges, but Tenth Street also presents great opportunities to the city of Dallas.” Swann said the city can take advantage of these opportunities only if it preserves the history of the neighborhood.
"As a preservationist, I'm committed to preserving the conditions in Tenth Street that give it historic integrity and interest," Swann said.