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.

The city council had agreed months ago to pay out $1.25 million in subsidies to the University of Texas and Oklahoma University in order to keep the annual Texas-OU game at the Cotton Bowl during the fair. Chaney argued that if the city was going to pay a subsidy for a white football game, it needed to pay one for a black game played at the fair also. He said he wanted the city to pay a $250,000 subsidy to support the Prairie View-Grambling State Fair Classic.

A whole lot of complete nonsense has been uttered recently, both on the council and in The Dallas Morning News letters column and elsewhere, about the relative economic values of these two games, Texas-OU and Prairie View-Grambling.

Look: Nobody has any idea how much either game contributes to the local economy. This is not a business deal; it's not an economic issue; it's all about prestige and culture; this is still basically a separate but equal city; and if the white people get a big football game at the fair, the black people get a big football game at the fair, too.

Remember, now. It's that, or we'll have to integrate! We always have a deal in Dallas. Remember "Dodge 'em Scooter."

Anyway, because of various contract issues and so on, the two subsidies only recently came up for a vote. At that point, Chaney and council member Dr. Maxine Thornton-Reese, who is black, began brow-beating the rest of the council and race-carding the hell out of them, especially Mayor Laura Miller.

What Chaney did not mention to his colleagues was that he had already negotiated a $225,000 subsidy for the black game from a group of State Fair concessionaires. The only reason anybody even found out about the extra $225,000 in payola was that the mayor, former investigateuse that she is, sniffed around and found out about it from Errol McKoy, president of the fair.

Even then, Chaney tried to pretend for a while that he was shocked! shocked! to hear about this extra money for the black game. But then Miller was able to establish that it was Chaney who had negotiated it. Oops! About that time, Chaney stopped taking calls from me and even managed to dodge me the one time I almost caught up with him in a City Hall corridor.

For a large man, he's got moves.

Now, where does all this background leave us, you may ask? Here. Finally last week, the Dallas City Council had to hammer all of this out. And hammer, they did. Hammer and tongs.

The chambers were brimming with black supporters, including Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price and state Senator Royce West, both of whom made stirring speeches.

White council member Gary Griffith offered an amendment to pay the black subsidy out of a fund other than the city's general fund, which actually made sense, but his amendment aroused strong opposition from the black council members.

The black members were civil and self-controlled. Chaney begged Griffith to withdraw his amendment. Griffith, swallowing hard, did so.

Councilman Bill Blaydes, who is white, and Councilman James Fantroy, who is black, traded frank words about their innermost feelings on race. I got the feeling I was listening to two guys who really are friends, struggling with a tough issue and having to do it in front of seven television camera crews.

The mayor never got to talk, which obviously ticked her off. She begged Councilman Steve Salazar, who is Latino, not to "call the question," a parliamentary move that cuts off debate, before she had a chance to speak. Salazar did it anyway. He probably thought he was doing her a favor.

Then the mayor, who obviously thought all of this stank to high heaven, swallowed hard, too. She joined the rest of the members present in voting unanimously for both subsidies, for the white game and the black game, too.

Here's my point. Given the history here, you and I could find a million reasons to pull all of this apart. We could defeat any and every effort at consensus. We could produce total gridlock without ever getting out of bed.

That's easy in Dallas.

But the council, weird and blemished and screwed up as it may be, deserves huge credit for finding its way to some kind of an agreement. I mean it.

As I say, when I button-holed people on their ways to their cars in the parking garage and told them I thought it was "marvelous, just marvelous the way you people pulled together in the end," they all gave me looks like, "Oh, gag a maggot, you weenie.

"You're gonna wake up one night, and we'll be standing over you with an ax, Schutze!"

But that's as it should be. The point is that they rose above it, came together and did something good. In spite of.

OK, I'm off to see the doc about my mind.

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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