City Hall

To Get Fair Park Right, We Have to Get the History of Fair Park Right

The real story is always better. Last week Michael Lindenberger of The Dallas Morning News wrote the official version of a political battle that took place almost a half century ago between the city of Dallas and a group of black homeowners around Fair Park in South Dallas. The true version is way more interesting.

But, wait. You want to know who cares about a political battle 50 years ago. OK, good point. It’s this: the city is about to make some kind of major decision – and major financial commitment with your money – concerning Fair Park, the 277-acre under-used albatross a couple miles east of downtown where the State Fair of Texas takes place over three weeks every Fall.

The whole history of Fair Park – the story, the issue, the problem, the challenge – has always had to do with one thing. The State Fair, now integrated, was originally a white deal. The neighborhoods around it were black.

The history Lindenberger was writing about – a successful effort by the city in the late ‘60s to force hundreds of black property-owners to sell their land around the fair – is at the beginning and the core of a profound ill will, an animus that bedevils negotiations over Fair Park to this day.

Lindenberger’s version of the history of the Fair Park homeowner’s movement is an iteration of a certain meme that pops up again and again in official (white) histories of Dallas. I have heard versions of this meme in the history of mass transit in Dallas, in the history of the Trinity River project, in the history of the city itself. It’s always the same:

There was a problem back in the old days. A bunch of (communists) (hippies) (black people) (Mexicans) (strip-club-owners named Ruby) (pot-stirring trouble-makers from outside the city walls) were stirring pots and making trouble. But a real strong real smart real tough white man (or black man named Ron Kirk) just put his darned foot down. And after that everything was great.

Lindenberger’s version of the ultimate showdown between the city and black property-owners around Fair Park in 1970 is this:

“This was a tumultuous time in race relations all over America, and Fair Park became a cause of note nationwide. In 1970, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference sent a representative to lean on the city.”

He goes on later to say:

“But after the hold-out homeowners kept asking for more money — and some simply to want to remain — Mayor J. Erik Jonsson stepped out of a (naturally) closed meeting at City Hall and declared he was through negotiating. “I think we have gone as far as reasonable human beings can be expected to go,” he said at a press conference, speaking with the support of a unanimous city council.

He said “the homeowners are being manipulated by an outsider from Atlanta, Ga., who has personally attacked the mayor and impugned the motives of the council.”

Parts of what Lindenberger says are true. In 1970, Peter Johnson was sent to Dallas from Atlanta by the nation's premiere civil rights organizing group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which had been headed by Martin Luther King, Jr. until his assassination in 1968.

But Johnson’s instructions were never to get involved with the Fair Park homeowners. His instructions were clear and explicit. He was to stay out of local politics entirely – steer clear — and concentrate instead on his duties as an advance man to promote the showing of a biographical film about MLK, produced to raise money for the support of the slain leader's widow and children.

The film had been shown or was slated to be shown in cities all over America, in both the south and the north. Dallas was the sole exception. No white theater owner here would show it here. Black theater owners were afraid to show it. Many black ministers actively opposed the showing of the film.

Johnson's job was to get the movie shown somehow anyway, collect the money and bring the money back to Atlanta ASAP. Dallas was never high on the list of cities in which the SCLC or Dr. King himself wanted to invest much blood, sweat or tears.

The ultra-conservative black community here, largely opposed to integration or assimilation as it was called then, had treated King coolly on his few visits here. Years earlier black clergy here had opposed King's father in a national denominational split in the black church. Very small love was lost between the SCLC and black church leadership in Dallas. Johnson's orders were to get in and get out, with the money.

I have confirmed Jonson’s version –that he was given clear orders not to get involved in local politics – with SCLC leaders. But they also laughed ruefully, admitting to me that Peter Johnson had never obeyed a clear order in his life.

While he was working on the challenge of getting the movie shown— a task in which he eventually succeeded — a delegation of property owners from around Fair Park came to him and asked for help. Their position was not that they refused to sell their land to the city. It was that city officials were willing to engage in normal price negotiations with the white owners but would not sit down and dicker with the black owners.
The city’s posture at the time was that property owned by black people was worth less than property owned by white people. Both black and white people owned land near Fair Park. Wherever that condition occurred – in the area near Love Field airport, for example – the city offered lower prices in eminent domain proceedings to black owners than to white owners even when their properties were identical and adjacent.

Johnson had been a foot soldier in the Civil Rights movement all over the South. In his 70s today, he still carries painful internal injuries suffered on Bloody Sunday,  March 7, 1965 at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, a scene dramatically portrayed in the 2014 film Selma

In 1970, Johnson listened to the complaints of the Fair Park homeowners and immediately recognized the true cause of their pain. Thirty years ago when I was working with Johnson on a book about it, he told me: “They were caught up in the old trick, where the liberals come to help them but then spend all their time telling them not to be confrontational and not to make trouble.”

Johnson knew this wasn't about money, exactly. It wasn't even really about property rights. The real issue — the real cost the black community in Dallas had incurred by stepping back from the national battle for integration — was respect.

Peter Johnson told the Fair Park homeowners that they needed to force Mayor J. Erik Jonsson to meet with them, to negotiate with them, to deal with them eye to eye and in person. It had to be the mayor, no one less. He had to deal with them, not Peter Johnson.

Mayor J. Erik Jonsson, a captain of industry, refused even to consider what he must have thought was an outlandish request. I have never heard the quotation Lindenberger cites – stepping out of a closed (naturally) meeting and putting his foot down – but I’m sure he did say something like that at some point. I know it was exactly the response Peter Johnson had been counting on him to make.

The afternoon of New Year’s Day, 1971, was to be a supremely proud moment in the history of white Dallas. The civic arm of the white establishment was then and still is the Dallas Citizens Council. But the much older ceremonial and fraternal arm has always been the State Fair of Texas, then and now a private and largely hereditary entity whose temple is the Cotton Bowl Stadium and for whom the annual Cotton Bowl football game has always been its most intensely significant ritual of identity.

On New Year’s Day, 1971, the Cotton Bowl game was to be broadcast on national television. If the white Dallas establishment had been a 13-year-old Jewish boy, this Cotton Bowl game would have been its bar mitzvah.

Johnson grew up up in Louisiana. As he would put it, he knew him some rich white boys and football. When he heard a national network was going to put the Cotton Bowl game on national TV and that as part of the ritual the Cotton Bowl Parade would come right down Forest Avenue (now MLK) through the heart of the black community and into the front gates of Fair Park, it was Christmas all over again for Peter Johnson.

The Fair Park homeowners sent word to the mayor that he had until midnight, December 31, to meet with them. If he failed to meet with them by that time, they would form a physical barrier of 600 picketers across Forest Avenue and halt the Cotton Bowl parade on national TV.

The Reverend Mark Herbener, a white Lutheran pastor whose Mount Olive church was on Forest Avenue, made the church available to Johnson as a staging area. When the night of December 31 arrived, the mayor still had not relented. Over 500 people, among them a scattering of white liberals, gathered in the basement of Mount Olive.

Bomb threats were called in to the church. Johnson suspected that some of them came from black Dallas clergy.

Late that night, word came that Mayor Jonsson was willing to meet at City Hall with Peter Johnson. Johnson refused, insisting that Jonsson meet instead with the homeowners’ leaders, Elsie Faye Heggins and J.B. Jackson, Jr.. Not long before the deadline was to elapse, the mayor relented and agreed to meet with Jackson and Heggins (both of whom now have streets named for them in South Dallas).

The story had two endings. The black property owners all lost their homes and businesses. They were able to negotiate better prices than what the city had been offering, but they all lost their property.

The other ending was this. Peter Johnson, in refusing to attend the meeting with Mayor Jonsson, gave the homeowners one inflexible instruction before they went into the mayor’s office at City Hall that night. He told them not to come out of that meeting without a significant symbol of respect.

This is how I described that second outcome in my book:

“The next day, when the people of South Dallas stepped back off their own streets to make the customary safe passage for the Cotton Bowl Parade – rolling down out of the city, with its army of high-stepping white girls in pink paramilitary uniforms and proud white college boys on tissue-paper floats — they saw that the parade was led, as usual, by a single Cadillac convertible. In that convertible sat Mayor J. Erik Jonsson. And J.B Jackson.

“They stood there,” Peter Johnson remembers, “and they looked … and they said … WOW!”
It so happens that I heard the other version of this same chapter, the official one, myself only recently, recounted to me by State Fair of Texas President Mitchell Glieber, who is too young to have remembered any of this on his own and must have heard it from his elders on the State Fair board of directors. I think we all understand why these official stories are still told. It’s human nature to feel respect for your antecedents and to make up hagiographic legends celebrating their greatness.

But it’s also remarkable, is it not, that now, today, 46 years later, the old white leadership of the city still does not understand what happened on that day 46 years ago. That day was not about money or property. It was about fundamental human respect and understanding. Money and property were only markers.

The official story – that the black homeowners were too ignorant or unreliable to do real business, so a strong white man had to put his foot down — is untrue. Continuing to tell it – continuing to believe it today – is unbelievable. The fact that we still can't agree on what happened or get this story right has everything on earth to do with why we still can't get Fair Park right. 

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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