Most Americans would probably be surprised to find out that groups lumped together today by the United States Census Bureau under the term “Caucasian,” such as the Irish, Jews, and Italians, were considered non-whites by English-descended elites in the late 19th and the early 20th century. Because of this misunderstanding, many miss the historical drama of race relations in cities like Dallas, where many racial struggles took place between powerful Anglos and marginalized “probationary whites” denied a place in the city’s power structure.
The late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and most of the scientific community today has argued that race has no real scientific meaning. There is more genetic variation — deviations in skin pigment, hair texture, inherited disorders, etc. — within the arbitrary racial boxes used to divide humanity than between each category.
Since miscegenation has proved as certain in human history as death, war and taxes, and since the purity of each group is a fiction, the definitions of these supposedly distinct categories change each time a child is born. As sociologist Howard Winant points out, " [I]n the United States, hybridity is universal: most blacks have ‘white blood,’ and many millions of whites have ‘black blood.’ . . . colonial rule, enslavement, and migration have dubious merits, but they are all effective 'race mixers.'"
Nevertheless, the idea of race arose in Western society around the time of Columbus and served to rationalize the slavery of Africans and the extermination of Native Americans from the 1500s to the 1800s. Creating a race hierarchy in which one gained membership in an elite caste, and avoided enslavement, simply based on skin color admirably served the self-interests of the wealthy and powerful. Millions of whites in the antebellum South lived lives of desperate poverty and little or no political influence, yet they could claim, at least, a superior status to the black-skinned “property,” who often toiled endlessly beside them.
With the abolition of slavery in 1865, however, racial politics became infinitely more complex. The post-Civil War 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery and granted citizenship rights, including the right to vote, to African American men. The caste privilege enjoyed by otherwise powerless poor whites had disappeared and they had hence lost their assumed vested interest in the power structure erected in cities like Dallas.
The former Confederate Postmaster and Dallas State Senator John H. Reagan saw danger in poor whites, who now might perceive that they lost status as a result of new civil liberties granted freedmen. Just after the Civil War, Reagan proposed to the Texas political leadership that the state grant voting rights to a limited number of literate freedmen in order to appease Northerners and keep them from pursuing a more aggressive program of black civil rights. At the same time, he wanted to eliminate voting rights from what he feared might be a more restless and radicalized population of “white trash.” Calling for requiring voters to pass literacy or intelligence tests, Reagan wrote to Texas Governor J.W. Throckmorton that any intelligence test required of potential voters that "would only affect the negroes, and would allow whites of a less degree of intelligence . . . to vote, would do no good towards securing the great ends we desire to attain."
That great end was the political extinction of poor men and women viewed as off-white. What haunted the imaginations of Dallas-area elites in the late 19th century was the prospect that poor whites might discover that, skin color aside, they had more in common with African Americans than they did with wealthy white elites. This prospect arose as a frightening reality in the late 19th century with the rise of the Populist Movement in Texas and the rest of the South and Midwest.
The seeds of Dallas working class radicalism had been sown in the agricultural misery of late nineteenth century. Rural refugees suffering from a farm depression raging since the 1870s made up much of Dallas County’s new population. Hammered by a tight money supply, falling cotton prices aggravated by overproduction, and excess interest charged by creditors, farmers in the Dallas area found they worked harder only to sink deeper in debt. Desperate, many of these farmers, "poverty-stricken men, women and little children," fled to Dallas and other cities in search of a better life but instead found "petty money wages, almost nothing an hour, and no limit to the hours" as Dallas socialist George Clifton Edwards said. These rural refugees found hope in the reform agenda of the Populist movement and the Socialist Party, which demanded higher wages, an eight-hour work day, an end to child labor and the right of workers to organize unions.
Led largely by middle-class, well-educated men and women, the Populist and socialist movements tapped into agrarian and working class culture in building their movements, "holding ‘Encampments’ which were more like Methodist camp meetings" where socialist ideology was discussed, Edwards recalled. Carl Brannin, another Dallas radical, said radical political meetings at the turn of the century gave “people a vision and a desire for the kingdom of heaven on earth, where justice between mankind will prevail and where unemployment, crime, disease and unrighteous acts will be unknown . . ."
The boom-and-bust economy from the 1870s to the 1930s deepened Dallas county's class divide. Radicalized by hardship, farmers formed the Texas People’s Party, better known as the Populists, in the 1890s. Populists adopted a bold political program in 1886 in Cleburne, Texas, 50 miles southwest of Dallas. The so-called "Cleburne Demands" called for a vast expansion of the nation’s money supply and for the government to provide direct credit to farmers as a way to cut out greedy middlemen.
Although the Populists kept their movement segregated, the fact that white members collaborated with parallel black Populist organizations led Texas Democrats to charge the Peoples’ Party with undermining white supremacy. By the 1890s, because of violence, intimidation, and the charge that it advocated "race mixing," the Populist movement collapsed. Nevertheless, a Dallas "Labor-Populist alliance" elected union painter Patrick H. Golden as the county’s state representative in 1892, butcher Max Hahn to the Dallas City Council from 1898-1900, and union musician John W. Parks to the Texas state legislature from 1912-1918.
Under pseudo-Populists like Texas governor Jim Hogg, the state Democratic Party absorbed the Peoples’ Party by the end of the 1890s and Populism virtually disappeared as a political alternative for farmers and workers. "Texans had responded to the Populist agitation rather warmly but the Populists were not very far from the Democrats in principle . . . and the movement faded more quickly than it arose," Edwards said.
The sight of black and white political cooperation during the Populist era raised for traditional elites the terrifying prospect of class revolt and the power structure in Dallas and elsewhere in the South moved to erect a new structure separating the races to serve the same function that has once been filled by slavery: to make poor whites to fill invested in a power structure that still left them economically and politically powerless. It was in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries that Jim Crow segregation arose in Dallas. Elites amended the city charter in 1907 to provide for segregation in schools, churches and public amusement venues. In 1916, by a referendum vote of 7,613 to 4,693, Dallas became the first city in Texas to allow racial housing segregation by law.
The law created three categories of neighborhoods – white, black and open. Neighborhoods already exclusively occupied by one race would be closed to the other. Open blocks, made up of poor and working class families, were already integrated and would remain so. The Texas Supreme Court invalidated the ordinance in 1917, but in 1921 the Dallas City Council passed a new law by which residents of a neighborhood could request that their block be designated as white, black or open. Once a designation was made, only a written request by three-fourths of the residents in that block could change the neighborhood's racial assignment.
Frightened by marginal and potentially revolutionary poor whites, Dallas' prosperous, meanwhile, retreated into protected enclaves on Ross Avenue and The Cedars, an affluent neighborhood south of downtown "enclosed by a natural thicket of cedar tress that blocked out much of the noise and confusion of the city." Landscape architect Wilbur David Cook developed Highland Park in 1907 as a refuge from an increasingly diverse city. Completely surrounded by Dallas, Highland Park incorporated as a separate town in 1913 and bitterly resisted attempts at annexation by its urban neighbor. Highland Park became the residence of "the executives of big businesses, utility companies and bankers" who founded the mini-city as a congenial tax dodge. Residents protected "from the depredations of the minorities" avoided higher city taxes while Dallas provided them with water at much lower cost even as rates climbed for city residents. The city limits of in-burbs like Highland Park and University Park, with their own school systems and police departments, became moats and the residents eagerly raised the drawbridges to keep away frightening African Americans, Mexican Americans and white radicals.
As law professor Ian F. Haney López argues, segregation made concrete the racial and, by extension, the class differences asserted by elite ideology. In other words, through their control of urban planning, elites limited city services in black, brown and poor white neighborhoods. Such neighborhoods became crowded because segregation law limited housing options for people of color and because low wages limited housing available to impoverished whites. The near-monopoly of the wealthy on political power also guaranteed that unhealthy developments like dumps and liquor stores would always be located within impoverished, disenfranchised communities. The resulting crowding, poor maintenance and filth provided proof in the elite mind of the inferiority of the poor and colored, and marginally white masses. This was true across the United States and Dallas certainly was no exception.
The process of class segregation accelerated in the 1920s, the white working class concentrating in the southern end of East Dallas while a middle class community formed near Baylor Hospital. By 1925, 60 percent of elites lived in Highland Park or North Dallas and 25 percent along toney Swiss Avenue in East Dallas. Only 14 percent still lived in South Dallas, with the remaining one percent holding out in the strongly blue-collar Oak Cliff community.
Almost simultaneously, elites began to mythologize themselves. It was in this era that Dallas leadership assembled the components of what would come to be known in the late twentieth century as the “Origin Myth.” The first histories of Dallas, produced in the late 19th century, focused on the supposedly exclusive role played by white businessmen in creating Dallas. The city’s first "historian," newspaper editor, author, state legislator, mayor of Galveston and then of Dallas, John Henry Brown, began this dominant Whiggish tradition in Dallas historiography. Starting with Brown's History of Dallas County, Texas: From 1837 to 1887, such "boosters" portrayed the city’s history as beginning with the arrival of John Neely Bryan, the first Anglo settler, in 1841. This narrative thus erases some 14,000 years of Native American history in the Dallas area. Dallas emerged, Brown said, when the first Texans conquered not only Indians, but Mexicans, "a nation of mixed blooded people, who had been held, for three hundred years, in abject subjection to a foreign, absolute monarchy . . ."
Brown already fully articulated a central feature in Dallas mythology, that whites represented progress and that people of color represented savagery.
In the twentieth century, local historians continued to use race as one explanation for the success of white colonizers in Dallas. "The Anglo-Saxon element, which penetrated the North East section of Texas, was of the same strain as King Alfred the Great, who wrote the charter of English liberty, and of the same blood that coursed through the veins of Oliver Cromwell," wrote one Dallas chronicler, Mattie Jacoby Allen. Allen, like Brown, saw liberty as grounded in whiteness. Allen described independence as innate in the conquering Anglo-Saxons. "These pioneers, who blazed the way into a savage and unfriendly country . . . relied on . . . the physical strength which they possessed, and their own individualism."
Brown’s themes were reiterated 22 years later by the second major local historian, prominent attorney Philip Lindsley. In his 1909 work A History of Greater Dallas and Vicinity, Lindsley described the Anglo conquest of Texas in 1836 as "the reassertion of the inherent superiority of the Anglo-Saxon over the Latin races." The hatred of "oppression and misrule" and "the universal longing for freedom" all derived from Anglo-Saxon racial traits, Lindsley argued. The city’s earliest chroniclers, like Brown and Lindsley, crafted most elements of the city’s Origin Myth. A fertile land lay wasted in the hands of colored peoples. A group of brave and determined white businessmen took the crude but favorable elements and fashioned from them a meritocracy on the plains.
Dallas’ success and growth rested on the accomplishments of white men, according to the city’s first historians. It’s future, some elites believed, could only be imperiled with the political empowerment of poor and working class whites. This viewpoint found voice most clearly, and harshly, in the writings and speeches of Dallas attorney Lewis Meriwether Dabney, a Virginia transplant and son of a University of Texas at Austin philosophy professor. Dabney opened his Dallas law practice in 1888, soon befriending some of the most powerful men in the city.
Dabney urged other Dallas leaders to restrict immigration and eliminate the right to vote to all but the most "qualified" white men. Dabney's comments came in the context of mass German and Jewish immigration into Dallas in the late nineteenth century, the arrival of Mexican Americans in large number between 1910-1930 and the development of a growing Sicilian community in the first three decades of the twentieth century. He blamed the growth of those communities on Anglo-Saxons who created such a comfortable civilization that now even the racial dregs of the world thrived. "As society has advanced from the primitive to the semi-civilized . . . its functioning has been biologically adverse to the best strains and favorable to the worst," Dabney said in an address to Dallas' influential Critic Club in December 1922.
Dabney feared the rise not just of the "African Hottentot" in multi-cultural districts like Deep Ellum, but also white racial deterioration. American cities had filled with inferior whites, such as "mongrelized Asiatics, Greeks, Levantines, Southern Italians, and sweepings of the Balkans, of Poland and of Russia," Dabney complained. Dabney told one friend that he did not, for the most part, regret the South losing the Civil War except that "as the negroes put it, 'the bottom rail got on top.'" The real tragedy of the Confederacy's defeat more than half a century earlier was "the emerging of these 'half-strainers' from the bottom to the top. These the war liberated much more than it did the Africans. This is the day of the poor white in the South . . .”
Like African Americans and Mexican Americans, the white working class was seen as carrying racially impure blood and was thus incapable of civilization. These poor whites, like their black and Mexican peers, were seen as a disease on the body politic that had to be quarantined and, if possible, eliminated. Elites went further than physically segregating marginal whites. They sought to increase the breeding of better whites and to keep inferior whites from reproducing. In 1914, a "Better Baby Contest" proved one of the most popular events at the Texas State Fair in Dallas. A committee of doctors measured the skulls and other traits of the 500 entrants, with $15 dollars given to the parents of the "best" child, any class, and $5 for the best twins and best triplets. The children in such contests, as historians have noted, were awarded in a similar way that prize "cattle, chickens and pigs" received blue ribbons elsewhere on the fairgrounds.
Winners of the “Better Baby” contests were inevitably white, flaxen-haired and the scions of elite families. Run by elites, these contests confirmed in the minds of the powerful their own superiority. Elites, however, hoped to convince the masses as well of the superiority of the rich. Hoping to evangelize the Dallas crowds to the gospel of better breeding, A. Caswell Ellis of the University of Texas flattered the crowd, declaring "Texas babies are better babies than the babies of any other state," before he "lightly touched on eugenics."
The chief lesson of eugenics was that the dysgenic white threatened the republic as much as the enfranchised black. This fear reverberated throughout America in the first three decades of the twentieth century. Like John H. Reagan before him, leading American eugenicists like Madison Grant feared the voting power of poor whites as much as he did extending the franchise to other races. The advance of democracy, Grant argued, led to "the transfer of power from the higher to the lower races, from the intellectual to the plebian class . . .," with the universal franchise resulting in the political triumph of the mediocre. Around the same time, an Alabama doctor warned of the threat posed by so-called white trash and proposed at a state medical convention a final solution to prevent a racial apocalypse. Genetically inferior poor whites, he said, "ought not to be allowed to get married, and men who persist in [degenerate behavior] ought to be confined in reformatory institutions, or have their testicles removed, so that it would be impossible for them to propagate." Dallas School Superintendent Justin Kimball also worried about the influence of a lower-class electorate who might be unfit for full citizenship. "Ignorant or corruptible citizens can always be counted on to vote, although they usually vote wrong," he wrote.
Dallas school textbooks in the early twentieth century echoed Kimball’s suspicion of lower-class whites and the superintendent’s discomfort with democracy. The wisdom of the Constitution, according to the authors of the 1935 Record of America lay in its protection of elite rule against the shortsighted demands of the unpropertied. Leaving political power in the exclusive hands of the rich was the American way, Dallas schools taught the city’s children. The Founding Fathers, the Dallas textbook said, "had little faith in the ability of people as a whole to maintain self-control and wisdom in government. They had no confidence in the man without property . . . a man who had failed to [accumulate property] . . . would be regarded as shiftless, lazy, or incompetent, and not deserving a voice in the government of others."
Lewis Dabney, meanwhile, echoed Madison Grant's sentiments about the dangers of mass politics. Dabney regretted the rising power of the poor white and prophesied the collapse of American civilization if those inferiors attained too much influence. Democracy, he warned, "by its very nature rejects the best and seeks the worst and is stumbling down into the mire."
Later in the twentieth century, Dallas elites acted on their terror of marginal whites. The 1920s and 1930s would see the rise in this city of the Open Shop Association, which crushed union organizing, and the Dallas Citizens Council, an elite cabal so autocratic that a candidate favored by the group could win a city council seat without making a single speech or making a single statement on the issues. Democracy withered in the city with scarcely a whimper.
The white supremacist ideas embraced by the Dallas city leadership, and shared by wealthy elites across the Western world, would reach their tragic, violent, but logical conclusion in the gas ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. The horrors of the concentration camps forced a tactical retreat on the part of organized elite racists in Europe and the United States, but by then white elite racial ideology had claimed millions of victims and made a travesty of democracy in Europe, the United States, and here in Dallas.
After federal courts mandated black and brown representation in city government beginning in the 1970s, and open, and often messy debate, finally began in city hall and the county courthouse, one could immediately hear the sighing nostalgia of elites longing for the good old days when our Anglo superiors made our decisions for us. Dictatorship would be preferable, the sentiment seemed to be, to the squalid shouting matches at City Hall, the school board and the county commissioners court.
Racism, of course, never disappeared and old ideas of eugenics lurk behind modern discussions of the supposed IQ gap between whites and blacks and the debate over whether we should build a Berlin Wall across the Mexican border to keep out dark-skinned people deemed incapable of becoming productive American citizens.
As the elite voices from the late 19th and early 20th century I have quoted perhaps unintentionally teach us, racism is a deadly toxin for a democracy and relentlessly seeks new victims. A society that seeks to redefine black and brown people as less than human has never stopped there and must constantly seek new objects of fear as elites scramble to justify their ever-greater acquisition of wealth and power. Elite rule depends on the politics of divide and conquer. Genuine democracy, by contrast, can only thrive in a color-blind society. The battle to create that society is not just an issue of fairness. It is a matter of survival.
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.