On a chilly February morning, George Keaton stands on the city’s Ronald Kirk Pedestrian Bridge—named after the first black mayor of Dallas—addressing a crowd of two dozen people. As Keaton, the executive director of Remembering Black Dallas, delivers a short lecture on Dallas’s black history, a panoramic view of the city’s skyline unfolds behind him just beyond the Trinity River floodplain. “In most cities, you see that the river is a major portion of the city, or a port,” Keaton says. “We don’t really have that in Dallas anymore.”
For decades, the Trinity has been one of the most polluted rivers in Texas, so much so that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality once ruled that the water was unsafe for extended human contact. But centuries ago, as Keaton explains, the Trinity sustained the Caddo Indians of North Texas, who relied on the river for fishing. In the 1840s, after the Native American tribes were violently removed, John Neely Bryan chose a spot along the river for its access to trade routes, and within a decade, Dallas had received an official charter from the Texas Legislature. The river would remain integral to the region’s economy, but not as an agricultural hub. “Dallas isn’t known for its cotton fields, like people think of all over the South. Dallas was really known for processing cotton,” Keaton explains. The cotton picked by enslaved people elsewhere in Texas was brought to the city by the river, and later by rail, to be milled by enslaved people in Dallas, building up the city as an industrial hub.
Keaton is a prominent, if unofficial, local historian. For the past five years, he’s been on a mission to engage Dallas residents with the city’s long and complex black history by leading bus tours and delivering lectures. The informal history lesson on the Ron Kirk Bridge was put together by the Trinity Park Conservancy, a nonprofit civic organization founded in 2004 with the mission of reshaping the river’s landscape. Not only did it financially support much-needed repairs for the pedestrian bridge, but it’s also been a key part of projects like the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge (which, as many have noted, bears a resemblance to St. Louis’s Gateway Arch). The conservancy has an ambitious plan to “reimagine” the river’s place in the city, building more projects that could serve to reintegrate the Trinity’s banks with the city’s urban core.
This could bring some development to a seemingly wide-open expanse of the city, but Keaton and other Dallas historians are keenly aware that such development can often lead to gentrification—and gentrification in Uptown, the Tenth Street historic district, and Deep Ellum has already erased critical parts of Dallas’s black history. So they lead people on walks to bring these stories to the forefront.
Almost every Saturday, Don and Jocelyn Pinkard lead tours of several historically black neighborhoods, which include some of the trendiest spots in Dallas today, like Uptown and Deep Ellum—both originally founded as freedmen’s towns after the Civil War. “[These neighborhoods] used to be known as the Harlem of the South,” Don Pinkard says. African American musicians, artists, civil rights leaders, educators, and business owners flourished here for generations.
Neither of the Pinkards are trained historians, but like Keaton, they’ve collected stories from community members. The Pinkards also consulted African American historians, such as Marvin Dulaney, to put together their tour.
The Pinkards’ tour has about two dozen sites, starting at the J.B Jackson Jr. Transit Center, which was named after the local community advocate who once helped black homeowners fight the city’s unfair eminent domain buyouts. One of the stops includes Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, a well-regarded magnet school that used to be Colored School No. 2; the unfortunate sites of lynchings that were all too common in the early twentieth century, and various buildings (or remnants of them) that were built by Dallas’s first black architects.
The freedmen’s communities that the Pinkards feature on their tour were initially built on some of the most undesirable land in the city: Uptown, which included the black community known as State Thomas, would routinely flood when rain breached the banks of the Trinity River; and Deep Ellum, known for its thriving jazz and blues scene, was founded alongside the railroads that brought commerce and industrial facilities into the city. Joppa, one of the oldest freedmen’s towns in the city, is now surrounded by asphalt and chemical plants that make the air hard to breathe for the five hundred people who live in the Southeast Dallas community today.
After decades of segregation, disinvestment, and redlining, these historically black neighborhoods were primed for urban “revitalization” projects in the seventies and eighties, which often destroyed those neighborhoods entirely, displacing communities and forcing them to move farther from the city center. For Don Pinkard, this especially hits home. His father grew up in State Thomas, and Pinkard himself grew up in Oak Cliff—today, he says, there’s only one woman in her nineties who still owns her original home in the neighborhood.
“A lot of people [that we give tours to] are surprised that Dallas even has a lot of black people— it’s not like New Orleans or Atlanta where that history is entrenched in the city,” Pinkard says. “Outsiders think of the Cowboys or the soap opera, and older white people and African Americans tell us, ‘I lived here my whole life and I never knew this story.’”
In recent years, the efforts of historians like the Pinkards and Keaton have drawn attention to historically black sites across Dallas, many of which remain in a state of disregard or on the verge of disappearance. The vast majority of old wooden shotgun homes in Deep Ellum and State Thomas have been replaced by high-rises, luxury apartments, and freeways en route to the suburbs, for instance. The home of Juanita Craft, a prominent NAACP leader, has sat in disrepair for years off Malcolm X Boulevard in South Dallas. The neighborhoods around Fair Park bear almost no markers of the civil rights struggle that she led here, or the bitter housing struggle that ensued when the City of Dallas announced plans to demolish middle-class black communities to expand the fairgrounds.
And for thirty years, a small “patch of nowhere,” as a Dallas Morning News columnist put it, was the only landmark in Dallas dedicated to three black men who were lynched in the summer of 1860 after a fire ravaged the still small city. “It was a hot July day,” Keaton says. “The fire was probably started by some fuel near dry grass.” But on the eve of the Civil War, white slave owners claimed that the fire was started by enslaved people or abolitionists attempting to start a rebellion. “They would have lynched or whipped every slave in the city,” Keaton says, “but eventually they settled on three men.”
Those three men were Patrick Jennings, Samuel Smith, and a man called Old Cato, and they were hung near the banks of the Trinity River a few days after the fire—not far from where, almost a century later, John F. Kennedy was killed. Though the park was dedicated in their memory in 1991 as Martyr’s Park, there were no markers telling their story for decades. Getting a proper memorial was a battle in itself. After the Dallas Morning News column ran, Keaton was asked to help put together the language for the marker.
“This is a struggle that I have a lot,” he says. According to Keaton, the first iteration of the marker prepared by the city, for example, didn’t refer to the men as enslaved people: it opted for the term “African Americans.” It also took out the word “lynching,” which Keaton was adamant had to be part of the marker.
This year, also through Remembering Black Dallas, Keaton is holding memorial services dedicated to the many men and women who were lynched across Dallas in the past century. (The service for Patrick Jennings, Samuel Smith, and Old Cato is scheduled for July.) Remembering Dallas’s black history requires a reckoning, says Keaton: like all Southern cities, that history is steeped in slavery, then segregation, racism, and decades of structural inequality—and much of that isn’t just a remnant of the past.
Since its founding, Dallas has struggled to push past its origins as a rural Southern outpost built on cotton and slave labor. Local historian Michael Phillips has a term for it: amnesia by design. “People in the city want to sugarcoat and change the narrative,” Keaton says. “But if you can’t talk about something, can you ever heal from it?”