Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Difference Between Fort Worth and Dallas

An arrogant little joke captures the essential difference between Fort Worth and Dallas. "What does Fort Worth have that Dallas doesn't?" the joke goes. "A major city an hour away."

Actually, if you've been to Fort Worth and Dallas, the obviously superior beauty and culture of the former will quickly become apparent. It's people from Fort Worth who could make the jokes about Dallas. Fort Worth Anglos might look at the racially divisive politics tearing apart Dallas City Hall and that city’s school board and indulge in a moment of self-righteous finger wagging. Fort Worth has never witnessed scenes like Dallas has in the past decade:

• A racially charged FBI corruption investigation of four black city council members (Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill as well as members James Fantroy, Leo Chaney and Maxine Thornton-Reese) that has expanded to include other officials.

• Thornton-Reese ranting "You Jews are controlling City Hall” during an off-the-dais encounter with Jewish councilmember Rasansky. Thornton-Reese was venomously referring to not only Rasansky, but also convert-to-Judaism Mayor Laura Miller .

• A white school board member, Dan Peavy, caught on tape making racial slurs against African American students, even as the board spilt into forever suspicious and hostile African American, Anglo and Mexican American camps, eternally at war like the three superpowers in George Orwell’s 1984.

By comparison, Fort Worth’s race relations seem harmonious and vastly more civil. Before the city gets too smug about not being Dallas, however, it might consider all that it has in common with the metropolis to the east. Fort Worth and Dallas actually evolved in strikingly similar ways, with the histories of the two cities hopelessly entangled. Big D’s current torments could easily haunt Cowtown in the future.

Both Dallas and Fort Worth owe much of their early prosperity to antebellum African American slavery. Both towns were tiny outposts in the 1850s, but they both played a major role in a series of bloody events called the “Texas Troubles” that rushed this state into the Confederacy. In Dallas, a fire broke out that destroyed much of the town in July 1860. The fire raged during a drought, but in spite of evidence that the blaze was accidental, Dallas plunged into hysteria. Rumors sped across the prairie that the Dallas fire, and other near-bye blazes causing $1 million in damages in 14 North Texas counties including Tarrant, represented the work of disgruntled slaves bent on arson as the first step of a revolt against their white masters.

Paranoia gained momentum just before statewide elections that August when the so-called "Bailey Letter," was supposedly found near Fort Worth. Reportedly written by a church bishop to the Reverend Anthony Bewley, the only Texas elder of the anti-slavery Methodist Episcopal Church, the letter purportedly outlined in great detail an unfolding abolitionist scheme to set fires across the state and murder slaveowners. Newspapers stories screamed that Texas slaves planned, with the help of abolitionists, to seize ammunition, poison their white owners, ravish the widows left behind, and take control of the state. Bounty hunters traacked down Bewley out-of-state and delivered him to Fort Worth, where a mob lynched him.

The Bailey letter doesn’t exist today, and seems to have only been in the hands of Texas newspaper editors eager to rally support for secession if Abraham Lincoln won the presidency in November. Once stories of the Bailey Letter spread across the state, however, no one questioned its authenticity. Local assemblies called for opening mail to check for subversive literature, compiling "black lists" of Republicans and abolitionists to be hanged, and monitoring suspected traitors for anti-slavery activities. Texas became a killing field, with historian Alwyn Barr estimating that mobs executed eighty slaves and thirty-seven suspected white abolitionists. As historian Wendell G. Addington suggested, pro-slavery Texans believed it was better to "hang ninety-nine innocent men than to let one guilty one pass." The fear of slave rebellion engendered by this hysteria no doubt played a role in the decision by Texas voters to approve secession from the Union in a February 1861 statewide referendum, with both Dallas and Fort Worth played major roles in this violent turn of events.

Both Dallas and Fort Worth became major cities after Reconstruction had essentially ended in Texas. The arrival of the railroad in the 1870s set both communities on the path to urbanization, though in Fort Worth, this growth was supplemented by the start of the cattle drives. The railroads, and the mass migration of Americans following the Civil War, created in both cities populations rich in ethnic, racial and religious diversity, as Jews, Italians, and Mexicans left their cultural imprint on the Dallas-Fort Worth landscape. Immigration made Fort Worth the third largest city in the state by the 1920s, behind only bustling Dallas and San Antonio. A larger population meant greater ethnic diversity that, in turn, lead to a white male backlash symbolized by the meteoric rise of the Ku Klux Klan in Fort Worth and Dallas in the early 1920s.

The 1920s Klan, unlike its post-Civil War predecessor, became a national political force in the United States after World War, with states north of the Mason-Dixon line like Indiana completely dominated by the KKK. Texas enthusiastically embraced the KKK and Dallas boasted the largest Klan chapter in the nation, with 13,000 members, including the city police commissioner, a Dallas Times Herald reporter, four Dallas Power & Light Co. officials, the Ford Motor Company's local superintendent, the Democratic Party chairman, the county tax assessor, Police Chief Elmo Straight and banker and future Dallas Mayor Robert L. Thornton.

The Fort Worth Klan, meanwhile, publicly tarred and feathered a gambler (the KKK fancying itself a defender of traditional values) and proudly paraded in the streets of the business district, even as it seized control of city hall. A KKK official visiting the city in 1922 congratulated local Klan leaders because “90 percent of [Fort Worth’s] preachers, your leading lawyers and your social leaders are loyal klansmen.” Just as the State Fair set aside a special day each year for Klan, so too did the annual Southwest Exposition and Fat Stock Show hosted a special “Klan Day.” Fort Worth Star-Telegram publisher Amon Carter and Dallas Morning News publisher George B. Dealey both adamantly opposed the Klan, though this had less to do with racial enlightenment than with distaste for social disorder that threatened the business climate and fears that the hooded order had stirred radicalism among the white working class. The Klan virtually disappeared in both cities by the late 1920s when a series of financial and sex scandals rocked the KKK.

In Fort Worth and Dallas, segregation held sway for most of the twentieth century. Downtown department stores opened up to African Americans almost simultaneously, with Leonard’s opening the way for downtown merchants in Fort Worth in 1960, while most Dallas stores desegregated in 1961 after a behind-the-scenes deal to end civil rights sit-ins embarrassing to city leaders. In both cities, white and black elites preferred to deal with each other out of the spotlight, to forge pacts that would inch civil rights forward with minimal disruption to the business climate and prevent the leadership of the civil rights movement from passing to younger figures, either more radical or ambitious than their cautious elders.

Fort Worth and Dallas also share a long history of self-congratulations on race relations, although Dallas stopped bragging in the 1980s. In 1938, a writer to the African American-owned Dallas Express gleefully expressed that for its black population, it was a "privilege to live in Dallas." Just two years later, a terrorist bombing campaign began against middle class African American families attempting to escape overcrowded segregated neighborhoods and move into modest, all-white neighborhoods. Whites dynamited homes bought by African Americans in the Exline neighborhood during 1940-1941 while one minister in the neighborhood pled for the city council to build a fence in the neighborhood to prevent black school children from walking near white homes on the way to school. The bombings abated, only to happen again in 1950-1951 when other families attempting to become integration pioneers. Even with this history, Dallas leaders still boasted when President John Kennedy praised the city for its calm response to a 1961 school desegregation order, even though the alleged integration barely qualified as token.

Fort Worth also too quickly pats itself on its collective back, confusing relative racial quite for genuine peace. One of the few books written on the city’s history, Richard F. Selcer’s Fort Worth: A Texas Original, proclaims that “[e]ven during the height of the modern civil rights movement in the turbulent1960s, the lines of communication were kept open and there was a measure of respect on both sides.” Because Fort Worth didn’t share the extreme violence of Birmingham, Alabama, which earned the dubious nickname “Bombingham” in the 1960s, Selcer and others conclude that race relations here were pretty good.

That’s easy to assume, if one forgets the spirit-killing ghetto in Hell’s Half Acre that white city fathers provided as housing for African Americans in the early 20th century, or the annual violent struggles that took place between police and residents of Como in the 1980s, or the pattern of zoning sanitary dumps, environmental hazards, liquor stores and neglected public housing units in minority and poor white neighborhoods. If it seems that Fort Worth is racially harmonious, it is because, like Dallas, its racial violence is the a more insidious type not so often involving police beatings or gun shots, but the small scale, snail’s pace slaughter executed through poor schools, shabby health care, and poverty wages. According to recent census data and city public health records, the infant mortality rate for African Americans in Fort Worth almost doubles that of whites. About 16 percent of African Americans lack health insurance, while a whopping 46 percent of Latinos have no coverage. Only 69 percent of the city’s African Americans consider themselves as enjoying good or better health (compared to 82 percent of whites.) As of the 2000 census, about a quarter of Fort Worth families earned $25,000 or less, with 22 percent of families with children under five living in poverty, and that population is disproportionately African American and Latino.

With so much in common, what accounts for the apparent differences in race relations between Fort Worth and Dallas? In considering this question, one is reminded of how delicately the past is constructed. The cities differ in degrees, not in kind. Fort Worth has a superior arts scene, better museums, a much livelier and entertaining downtown, and seems to have a more self-assured sense of identity and a deeper sense of community. None of these factors, however, would do much to bridge the forever wide gap in Fort Worth between whites on one side and African Americans and Latinos on the other in regard to wealth, health and lifespan, nor explain why school board meetings here have not been attended by armed members of the New Black Panther Party or why racial slurs are not the lingua franca of Fort Worth city hall as sometimes happens in Dallas.
Perhaps the cities differ because Dallas’ black leadership has always been more vocal than its counterpart in Fort Worth. Both Dallas’ and Fort Worth’s black community share a long history of political activism. A loophole in the state’s election laws in the early twentieth century allowed African Americans to participate in non-partisan municipal races and African American voters in Fort Worth and Dallas often became the crucial swing bloc to determine who controlled the city council. Dallas’ NAACP chapter, however, was the epicenter of the state’s civil rights struggle, far eclipsing Fort Worth activists in their efforts to bury Jim Crow across the state.

It was Dallas’ NAACP chapter that played the most important role in the key Sweatt v. Painter lawsuit ending segregation at the University of Texas’ law school and that won another landmark case equalizing pay for black and white school teachers. Then, just as Dallas’ civil rights leadership of the mid-20th century began to fade from the scene, African Americans and Mexican Americans in Dallas raised their voices in protest again because of two formative experiences in the late 1960s and early 1970.

First came the city’s decision to level African American homes in order to expand parking at Fair Park, a move that politicized a more assertive, more Afro-centric cohort of black leaders like Elsie Faye Higgins and Al Lipscomb. Then came the shocking 1973 police murder of Santos Rodriguez, a 12-year-old killed in the backseat of a squad car by a Dallas officer. These events galvanized the black and brown communities of Dallas to fight anew for social justice. That assertiveness turned to bitterness as white flight undermined efforts to end segregation and as capital flight to the suburbs left newly empowered African Americans and Mexican Americans to preside over the hole in the economic donut. Over the past 30 years, the civil rights struggle degenerated into internecine strife, with the black and brown communities expending more fire against each other than on a political system of white privilege.

Fort Worth has been relatively lucky so far, but it not immune from these same centrifugal forces. Incidents such as the murder of a Fort Worth Police Officer Henry “Hank” Nava by alleged Aryan Brotherhood member Stephen Lance Heard last November, the alleged harassment last year by Fort Worth police of African Americans attending a Unitarian Universalist assembly, and the on-going tragedy of economic and physical segregation indicate, racism is alive and well in this city. It could take just a spark, a zoning decision that destroys African American or Mexican American housing, an anti-immigrant rally that gets out of hand, or a gunshot in the back seat of a squad car, that could turn Fort Worth into a mirror image of Dallas’ twisted racial politics. Unless the city commits to real racial justice, today’s alleged peace could be no more than the quiet before the storm.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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