Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Where The Streets Should Have These Names

According to a Cold War-era joke, the Soviet Union was the only country where the past was unpredictable. The punchline refers to a Russian practice whereby military and government officials fallen out of favor would vanish from official records and history books and even disappear in retouched photos. In one extreme case, owners of The Great Soviet Encyclopedia were sent an extended article on the Bering Sea and told to paste the entry over the passage on Leventry Beria, the bloodthirsty head of the Soviet secret police who was executed on orders of Nikita Khrushchev shortly after the death of dictator Josef Stalin.

This joke came to mind during the recent controversy over renaming either Industrial Boulevard or Ross Avenue after Latino union organizer and civil rights leader Cesar Chavez. The kerfuffle began when the city spent $20,000 on a survey asking Dallas residents their preference for a new name for Industrial, the re-christening part of $2 billion redevelopment that would transform a ramshackle collection of bail bond businesses and liquor stores into a gentrified hub of condos and pricey stores. Residents preferred “Cesar Chavez Avenue” by a 2-1 margin over the other options. Nevertheless, on Nov. 10 the Dallas City Council voted 12-3 to name Industrial “Riverfront Boulevard” and also rejected a new name for Ross.

Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert hinted that the name “Cesar Chavez Avenue” might send the wrong message to potential investors and visitors to an emerging yuppie enclave. "We were trying to create a marketing scheme for that entire street given its location to the Trinity," Leppert told the The Associated Press. Ever the politician, Leppert and the council created a commission to study what street might be appropriate to rename after Chavez. The committee’s recommendations are expected after New Year’s.

Many whites see the controversy as a silly sideshow. In a Sept. 9 entry on the News’ Metro Blog, reporter Ed Housewright, in a September 9, 2008 entry on the newspaper’s Metro blog ridiculed this “foolishness over street names in Dallas.” According to Housewright, “The street-naming brouhaha illustrates the worst in politics. ‘Community leaders’ (of any race) start yammering about changing a street name to honor an important dead person. How about spending your energy on an issue that will actually help people? Maybe tutoring at-risk kids. Maybe volunteering at a homeless shelter. Maybe being a foster parent. The problem with real involvement: It doesn't draw any attention to yourself.”

Of course, community leaders are able to multi-task and can tutor at the same time they ask the City Council to rename a street. Also, it was those surveyed by the city who favored the name change and not some publicity-hungry professional malcontents. Housewright also badly underestimates the power the past holds over ordinary people’s lives. Dallas shares with the Soviet Union, selective (and fluid) memory shapes its landscape. Dallas’ place names and public memorials have minimized the role played by union activists, political dissenters, African Americans, Mexican Americans, and immigrants in building the city. Dallas is not unique in this regard. For the most part, our street names are monochromatic, and the role of black and brown people who helped build the country have been as thoroughly erased as Mr. Beria in post-Soviet Russia. As a rule, white people have been loath to honor people of color when naming public buildings or streets or when building public monuments. That absence is barely noticed by Anglos who have enjoyed a disproportionate amount of political, economic, and social power. Street names represent not a foolish brouhaha, but a statement of community values and a recognition of individual accomplishments. For blacks, browns and Asian Americans, the absence of public acknowledgment inflicts serious wounds.

For decades, Dallas public school students learned that blacks, Mexican Americans and Native Americans passively received civilization from whites, contributing nothing of value to the world in return. "No account is given of the black races of Africa and Australia, of the brown races of southeastern Asia and the Pacific islands, or of the red races of America; because the elements of culture among these people have rarely influenced modern civilization,” declared a high school world history textbook used in Dallas in the 1920s. Another text used in Dallas in the 1930s proclaimed that blacks were "dark of skin . . . [and] even darker of mind, for the light of civilization had not yet reached them." The same text described Africa as a land of "cannibals and strange wild beasts of the forests." Individual African Americans and Mexican Americans were not regularly identified in Dallas school textbooks until the 1970s, a fact which has profoundly shaped the attitudes of the city’s leadership class today.

West Dallas native and former journalist Jerrold Ladd, in his searing 1994 autobiography Out of the Madness: From the Projects to a Life of Hope, recalled the pain he felt after he was bused from his West Dallas home to a white school where he searched for vain for black heroes in history books and black role models on the school staff. “No one had ever told me I was capable of being a genius, building a city, pioneering new medicine, becoming an engineer,” Ladd wrote. “How could [I] disprove that the success of every black person was not somehow, always tied into someone white: white teachers, white schools, white mentors, white history, white founding fathers?”

Slowly, school textbooks have incorporated the stories of black and brown historical figures like Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, and Texas Revolutionary hero Lorenzo de Zavala. Only in the last two decades has Dallas has made a paltry effort to use its landscape to connect black, brown and Asian contributions to its history. These tributes – street, school and postal facilities named after Mexican Americans and African Americans – generally are segregated into minority communities rarely explored by white Dallas. Meanwhile, place names across the city actively insult African Americans and Mexican Americans with tributes to white supremacists.

A visitor to Dallas might think the city represented the emotional heart of heart the Confederacy. The city’s massive Confederate War Memorial in Pioneer Park features a 60-foot pillar and statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Albert Sidney Johnston, and Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis, men who hold only a tangential connection to Dallas history. A massive equestrian statue of General Lee astride his horse Traveler oversees Lee Park while a statue representing the Confederacy stands in the front of the center portico of the Centennial Building at Fair Park Murals in the Great Hall of State depict numerous Confederate officers.

One Dallas elementary school honors a local man who served as the Postmaster for the Confederate States of America, John H. Reagan. After the Civil War, Reagan proposed denying the right to vote to poor and uneducated white citizens. Dallas elementary schools are also named after Confederates with no direct connection to Dallas: General Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Another campus bears the name of Oran N. Roberts, who served as president of Texas’ 1861 Secession Convention. That convention plunged the state into a bloody losing war and proclaimed the state “as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery--the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits--a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people [intend] should exist in all future time.” (The Secession Convention also declared that Texas must leave the union to resist the North’s “debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color--a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of the Divine Law.”) In 1866, Roberts served as a leader in the post-Civil War state Constitutional Convention that sought to reduce newly freed African Americans to a chattel-like status.

A common argument against rechristening Industrial Boulevard after Cesar Chavez is his lack of ties to North Central Texas. “ . . . Chavez has no connection to Dallas - Trinity River or Industrial Blvd,” Dallas-based conservative blogger Sharon Boyd wrote about the issue. “ . . . Naming a Dallas street after a California union organizer is ludicrous.” Chris, a Morning News reader, agrees, and on Sept. 9 posted on the Metro Blog this sarcastic comment on the suggestions to rename streets after Chavez and Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi: “[Cesar ] Chavez and Mahatma Gandhi????
Famous Dallasites?
 Did they [help] . . . build Reunion Tower? Ushers at the Cotton Bowl? DPD officers? Funny, I just don't remember either of them being Dallasites or significantly contributing to Dallas in any way.” The same could be said of the Confederate heroes lionized across the city. Roberts, Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Albert Johnston and Jefferson Davis never lived in Dallas. The Confederacy encompasses just four years in Dallas’ nearly 170-year history. And, all the Confederate memorializing aside, many living in Dallas County during the Civil War actively opposed the Confederacy.

Opposition to secession was seen as enough of a threat to the community that when an accidental 1860 fire destroyed downtown Dallas, a panic about a feared slave rebellion aided by white abolitionists inspired the murder of three suspected slave arsonists, the lashing of the 1,000-plus slaves in the county and the harassment and expulsion of Northern-born Dallas residents. In spite of this political oppression, one in four Dallas County residents voted against secession in a February 1861 referendum. Meanwhile, enthusiastic Confederates used terrorism and violence to maintain control of the community during the Civil War, A pro-Confederate gang hanged a "Mr. Record" in 1862 "for being a Union man a deliberate cold blooded murder without a mitigating excuse," according to a later United States Army report. "Not satisfied with hanging till dead they shot him all to pieces." Yet no memorials in Dallas commemorate these other Texans who maintained their loyalty to the United States in spite of often-homicidal pressure. This exclusion, and the excessive honors bestowed upon Dallas’ Confederate past, amount to a deliberate distortion of the city’s history.

Not only do Dallas’s public places honor Confederates born outside the Metroplex, but one roadway even lionizes a homegrown Ku Klux Klansman. R.L. Thornton, mayor of Dallas from 1953 to 1961, joined the Klan in the 1920s when the KKK dominated city and state politics. The Klan’s violence in Dallas, which included the kidnapping of a black bellhop at the Aldolphus Hotel and the etching in acid of the letters “KKK” on the victim’s forehead, could not have been unknown to Thornton. In an era when Thornton’s contemporaries such as Rabbi David Lefkowitz at Temple Emanu-El or Dallas Morning News publisher George B. Dealey condemned the Klan as a criminal gang, Thornton's Dallas County State Bank proudly advertised itself as a "KKK Business Firm 100%.”

During the 1930s, Thornton conjured up the Dallas Citizens Council, a cabal of bankers, insurance company executives, real estate agents and utility company CEOs that behind closed doors hand-picked mayors and city council members with no democratic input. Those anointed council members then prioritized city construction contracts, purchased real estate and gave tax breaks in ways that benefited members of the Citizens Council. Yet, in spite of this record of racism, hostility to public accountability, and use of public funds for personal gain, Dallas honors this man with R.L. Thornton Freeway. Thornton no doubt played a major role in building Dallas, but such a tribute alongside the Old Dixie memorializing, is insulting to the city’s African Americans.

What is Dallas telling the world when it embraces a past dominated by slaveowners and hooded terrorists but declines to name a major roadway after Cesar Chavez? I suspect the opposition to naming a street after Chavez has little to do with the fact that he was never a Dallasite. Chip, another poster on the Metro Blog, made this clear June 7 when he suggested that Industrial be renamed “Illegal Alien Boulevard.” Chip apparently does not know that Chavez was born in Yuma, Arizona, well within United States’ borders, and casually assumes all of Mexican heritage are undocumented workers. One, however, can at least appreciate his candor. Chip is not masking his intolerance as a deep-seated concern about preserving Dallas history.

Perhaps we should meet people like Chip halfway. Too often streets, public memorials and buildings honor a limited number of the most famous black and brown men and women. The African American civil rights movement was more than Martin Luther King, Jr., just as “la causa” was more than just Cesar Chavez. A lengthy roster of Dallas civil rights pioneers and community builders remains under-recognized or completely ignored on the city landscape.

John Mason Brewer, a collector of African American folklore, represents one of the most significant literary figures in the city’s history. A Goliad, Texas native, Brewer taught Spanish at Dallas’ Booker T. Washington High School in the early and mid 1930s. Brewer held two passions: an interest in African American history and black folktales and poetry. A prolific author and friend of famed Texas author J. Frank Dobie, Brewer authored and edited two books while in Dallas, Negro Legislators of Texas and Their Descendants (1935) and The Negro in Texas History (1936.) Brewer used his historical research and the folktales he collected to counter white assertions of black inferiority.

Through men like Brewer, black children learned that the world was a dangerous place that could be coped with only through humor and self-respect. Themes of intelligence winning over brute force, and of loyalty prevailing over greed pervade Brewer's folktale collections. Brewer’s work provided African Americans students with vital psychological defenses needed in lives often marked by poverty and discrimination. Surely a school named after Brewer would be more fitting than one named after Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson.

Perhaps no one better deserves having a street or government building named after him than Brewer’s boss, Booker T. Washington High School’s longtime principal, John Leslie Patton. Training a generation of African American political leaders and social justice activists who would achieve prominence in Dallas in the 1960s and 1970s, Patton presided over Booker T. from 1939 to 1969. Amazingly, Patton turned the challenge of running a segregated, underfunded and overcrowded campus into a cultural opportunity, joining Brewer in a campaign to instill black pride and to teach students they need not passively accept the harsh terms of a Jim Crow existence.

He provided a night school for African American adults denied an adequate childhood education. Patton heroically countered the racism offered in the second-hand textbooks given his students, creating in the 1930s “Negro History” classes where students were taught that blacks “formed an integral part of American civilization." In Dallas’ white schools up until the early 1960s, students were misinformed that Africans lived in a crude, primitive state until the arrival of white explorers and slave traders.. Not so at Booker T. "Africa, the Mother country . . . is often called the Dark Continent; but this is a misnomer, for Africa gave to civilization the smelting of iron, stringed instruments, trial by jury, etc.," as Patton's curriculum guide for the course declared. Booker history students read a graduate-school level book list that prominently featured W.E.B. Du Bois and the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance. For decades, Booker T. students learned they had a moral obligation to serve their community. Surely Patton deserves to have a street or highway named after him or a public statue erected in his honor. Given his contribution to historical consciousness, why not name the Hall of State at Fair Park, which houses the archives of the Dallas Historical Society, after Patton?

Speaking of Fair Park, why not use that site to remember Juanita Craft? A city park, a post office, and a recreation center have been named in her honor and the Juanita Craft Civil Rights House is now a museum operated by the City of Dallas. But Craft deserves a much loftier status in public memory. Craft brought zeal and boundless energy to her post as membership director and then field organizer of the NAACP in the 1940s. In 1944, Craft became the first black woman in Dallas County history to vote. Greatly increasing the local NAACP rolls, Craft energized the group’s Dallas chapter, which would play a lead role in lawsuits desegregating the University of Texas at Austin’s law school and equalizing black and white teachers’ salaries in the Dallas school district.

Eventually Craft would help organize nearly 200 NAACP chapters. Bucking some prominent, more conservative African Americans in the 1950s Craft led protests against “Negro Achievement Day,” the one day State Fair organizers allowed African Americans to attend. Craft and her young acolytes labeled the event “Negro Appeasement Day.” Their pressure helped end segregation at the Fair, which now sits
in a largely African American and Mexican American neighborhood. Why not honor her by changing Fair Park’s name to “Juanita Craft Park”?

Finally, what would be more appropriate than naming a major thoroughfare like Central Expressway after a man who was at the center of Dallas’ labor and civil rights movements? The city has honored Francisco “Pancho” Medrano, who co-founded the city’s chapter of the American GI Forum, by naming a middle school and a post office after him. Again, the honors seem to not adequately match the achievements of the man.

An active member of the United Auto Workers, Medrano’s social justices aims were universal. He participated with equal enthusiasm in the African American and Mexican American civil rights movements. He participated in sit-ins integrating Dallas lunch counters, marched in demonstrations alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma and Birmingham, Ala. and helped with Cesar Chavez unionize farm workers in South Texas. Medrano helped found the United Farm Workers union and he led efforts that integrated the Sportatorium boxing and wrestling auditorium, where black fans had been forced to use Jim Crow seating. Similar praise could be given Levi Olan, rabbi at Temple Emanu-El from 1949 to 1970, who made African American civil rights a major concern from the moment he arrived in Dallas from Massachusetts. Even as synagogues across the South led by rabbis supporting civil rights faced threats, vandalism and even bombing, Olan bravely spoke up for black rights and against the Vietnam War.

Opponents of the Cesar Chavez Avenue proposal have, in part, argued that the names Industrial Boulevard and Ross Avenue have too much historical significance to have their names changed in honor of a Latino and outsider to Dallas. The names I proposed above belong to men and women who lived in Dallas, shaped Dallas, and made Dallas a better place. If street names, and the monikers of schools and other institutions are trivia, as Housewright and others have suggested, then why is there such opposition to a name change? Changing place names is not as important as feeding the hungry or volunteering for literacy programs. But it does reveal to the rest of the world whom we admire, our attitudes toward democracy, and whether we see diversity as an asset or an inconvenience. Many people of color, along with religious minorities and working class activists, built Dallas. It’s time these men and women receive their proper recognition.


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.