Last week I wrote about one of the two last bastions of racial segregation in the city, black South Dallas, where black leadership is in the process of running off a business owner for reasons I can’t stop myself from guessing are largely racial.
I said one of two, did I not? I’m not letting the white old guard off the hook. And I understand better than most white people why the black old guard in South Dallas is unenthusiastic about white people.
“These past few years have really changed my view on America and on politics and the world in general. I was very naive and still am at times about the inequalities that happened here in Dallas." — Jesse Moreno
Last week a play called Travisville by William Jackson Harper, drawn from events in Dallas over a half-century ago, ended its run in New York to considerable acclaim. Some people have said the play was based on The Accommodation, my 1986 book about the racial history of Dallas.
After reading the brilliant script, I think “based on” is a description that gives me too much credit. I would be not just satisfied but very proud if the play were described once in a while as “inspired by” my book. (The playwright, who used to live here, has mentioned my book in talking about his thought process.)
So Harper and I share an insight into the racial history of Dallas. What probably looked deceptively like racial peace in the 1960s was in fact a racial stalemate borne of terror. Slavery, Reconstruction, debt peonage and the Texas criminal justice and penal systems had been the main instruments of that terror for more than a century.
Things were more quiet here than in the Old South, because things here had been so much worse than in the Old South. It’s a reality that the white old guard, with all its saccharine reverence for ersatz Confederate monuments, still refuses to acknowledge.
The completely pejorative white-centric explanation for the old black leadership’s pronounced lack of interest in integration here would be, I suppose, fear. I don’t know. I can’t help hearing something else in it, however — a kind of repugnance.
During Reconstruction, white men rode horses into black churches to trample alive the men, women and children who had gathered there to worship. That’s just a for-instance. So what would it have been in white culture that would have caused black parents to want to raise their children among white children?
Black people were never the only non-whites subjected to cruelty and oppression by the old white regime. Mexican-Americans in Dallas came in for some of the same, as did, I’m sure, everybody else who was less than bed-sheet white by birth.
But the enmity and viciousness of whites toward people of African descent were always more pointed, more active and relentless, for some reason, than toward Hispanics.
I know there is a sentiment among some black people in the city that Mexican-Americans are amateurs when it comes to dealing with prejudice. That’s another topic best tip-toed around very quietly by white guys.
But Hispanics in general and Mexican-Americans in particular also are able to act as change-agents and mediators in the city in ways that tend to elude both black and white people. On Oct. 18, the Dallas Park and Recreation Board adopted a resolution honoring a Dallas Mexican-American martyr to white oppression — something we haven’t seen done yet for what I assume are the more numerous black martyrs.
In explaining why it needed to be done, park board member Jesse Moreno pointed directly to the need for Dallas to celebrate and honor all of its citizens, all minorities in particular, not just Mexican-Americans. “It’s a much larger statement in today’s climate,” he said.
The resolution, adopted unanimously by the park board, renames Pike Park Recreation Center on Harry Hines Boulevard a mile northwest of downtown. It is now called Santos Rodriguez Center, for a 12-year-old boy shot to death in the early 1970s by a white Dallas police officer investigating the theft of cash from a vending machine.
What is most telling in the resolution — a thing that had to be fought for by Moreno and by Dallas City Council member Adam Medrano, who appointed Moreno — is the frankness of the resolution. It says, “Santos Rodriguez was murdered in Dallas, Texas, at the young age of 12 on July 24, 1973.”
I was aware for months before the renaming that Moreno and Medrano were fighting for that one word, murdered. In a way, the resistance to it made no sense. In an era when Texas juries just did not convict cops, the Dallas Police officer who killed Rodriguez by shooting him in the head in a patrol car was convicted of murder. The nature of the crime was never a gray area.
“I envision the center, now named Santos Rodriguez Center, as being a community asset where there are resources offered ... and obviously not being exclusive to any one demographic.” — Jesse Moreno
But saying it aloud, putting ink to paper, inscribing that word, murder, into the official history of the city was bitterly resisted at first by some white board members. The thing that makes me smile and feel good about the city is that Moreno, a quietly but persistently persuasive person, talked the whole park board into it. The renaming of Pike Park Center was done by Latinos, by black people and by white people.
Moreno thinks a primary mission of the renamed center must be preserving the history of the old Little Mexico neighborhood that once surrounded it, but he told me he also definitely sees the center as a resource for everybody:
“I envision the center, now named Santos Rodriguez Center, as being a community asset where there are resources offered, opportunities to be sought out, a meeting space for pro bono attorneys to come and meet with ordinary citizens, for clinics to be held, and obviously not being exclusive to any one demographic.”
Moreno, a restaurant owner in his early 30s, told me that his role on the park board and his involvement in politics generally have changed him:
“These past few years have really changed my view on America and on politics and the world in general. I was very naive and still am at times about the inequalities that happened here in Dallas. I had just grown up in a different world. I had not seen the real Dallas. I was almost sheltered, if you will.
“Up until recently, I really didn’t know what white privilege was. I thought it was just an excuse for minorities. But every day my eyes are opening wider to the reality and to a much bigger picture.”
There is a misgiving lurking in the hearts of many of the white people I know, probably driven by guilt and a fear of reprisal, that candor can only be incendiary, that speaking honestly about the dark past will call up the devil, that a fragile, paper-thin peace can be purchased only by pursed lips and silence.
And, of course, I would assume people on the other end of that equation must assume that, if white people can’t even say the devil’s name aloud yet, he must still be in the room with them. In that sense the silence and the pursed lips only prolong the distrust and keep the chasm wide.
But if we look around the city and look around the country, in spite of all the mess in Washington right now, we see everybody rising up — the racial minorities, the gender and sexual minorities, women, everybody. And everybody is saying the same thing. We’re all human, we’re all born with the same basic human dignity, and, by the way, you’re not the boss of me.
When you put it all together, the message is pretty hard to miss. Humankind is going through a spiritual molt. The old, confining tribal skin is being cast off, sometimes painfully, and we are redefining ourselves as universally and equally human.
Naming the center for Santos Rodriguez doesn’t reopen a wound. It puts sunlight on the wound and allows it to heal at last after a long half-century. That’s where the city is headed. That’s what it’s all about, from pulling down the Reconstruction-era Confederate monuments to honoring the name of a 12-year-old kid killed by a white police officer. We’re figuring it out. We are celebrating our diversity and our oneness.