Friday, June 24, 2011

The Music of Cracking Necks: Dallas Civilization and Its Discontents, Part III

In 2006, the University of Texas Press published my first book, "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001". In honor of its fifth anniversary, I am serializing this work. Below I describe the aftermath of a fire that devastated downtown Dallas in 1860 and was blamed on a slave rebellion. I explain why I don't think the fire was started by slaves and how slaveowners manipulated the subsequent statewide panic to inspire support for secession.

By late September, much of the fear and passion stirred over the summer had burned out, and even some ardent fire-eaters began to doubt whether a plot ever existed. The New Orleans Daily Picayune held as dim a view of "Black Republicans" as the Dallas Herald, yet on September 8 its editor concluded, "[n]ot half of what has been confessed seems to have been born out by later facts . . . wells thought to have been poisoned . . . [were] untainted by any deleterious substance."

The fact that many of the slave suspects possessed guns, a violation of Texas law, was neither unusual nor sinister but reflected common frontier practice. There is reason to suspect that the "Texas Troubles" were a series of accidents exploited by pro-secessionists to intimidate their opposition. Many fires reported in the press never took place. For instance, the burning of trash behind the Brenham courthouse sparked a panic there, while a newspaper editor in Weatherford expressed his surprise at reading in another city's newspaper a false report that Weatherford had been set ablaze. Many of the fires that did occur happened in a time of drought that would facilitate the spread of accidental fires.

One might question the authenticity of the Bailey Letter, suddenly produced by a newspaper editor who was one of the fiercest fire-eater voices. Why one plotter wrote a letter not to convey new information but to review details of capital crimes already underway to a co-conspirator is hard to fathom. If the 1860 rebellion was authentic, it must rank as the strangest in history. One would have to believe that slaves and abolitionists feverishly worked to set fires simultaneously across the state and then passively waited to be arrested. During the chaos of the 1860 fires, no slaves attempted to seize forts or ammunition stores. No slaves killed or injured whites. No slaves took hostages. No slaves poisoned wells or fired shots in anger. If there was a second phase to this rebellion beyond setting fires, no participant seems to have reached that page in the playbook.

Rather than uncover a conspiracy, the Committee of Vigilance in Dallas most likely ruthlessly exploited a tragedy to pursue a political agenda. The statements of an unnamed member of the committee in a Dallas Morning News retrospective on the blaze in July 1892, cast doubt on the proceedings. Requesting anonymity and telling the reporter that he voted against the convictions of the three slaves, he claimed that the Dallas fire was a simple accident. "When the town was burned it was a hot day — so hot that matches ignited from the heat of the sun," the committee member said. "Wallace Peak had just finished a new two-story frame building and in the upper story that day a number of men were lounging and smoking." Near the Peak Drug Store, he said, were "a lot of boxes filled with shavings, and I think a cigar stump or a match was thrown into one of the boxes, and from that the fire started . . . [S]omebody had to hang; and the three negroes went."

White leaders probably reasoned that mass whippings and hangings would discourage treasonous thoughts should Texas secede from the Union and a Northern army of emancipation march towards the Red River. The suppression of abolitionists also imposed a degree of political conformity during the secession crisis. A virtual civil war ravaged Texas months before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, a war won this time by the South. Dallas leaders clearly hoped the sense of danger created by the summer fires would bridge the village's deep social chasms. Elites scheduled a unity barbecue October 3 which would "successfully rally every patriot, regardless of being . . . an Oppositionist, or a Democrat . . ." Hope that oppression could force harmony on the community, however, proved to be in vain. In spite of a summer of intimidation and violence, Dallas fire-eaters such as Pryor never completely silenced dissent.

Following Abraham Lincoln's victory in the November presidential race, Texas scheduled a secession referendum on February 23, 1861. Historians usually interpret Dallas County's 75 percent "yes" vote for secession as a solid endorsement of the Confederate cause. However, Texas laws allowed anti-secession voters to be easily intimidated, which makes the number of "no" votes remarkable. Under the 1860 state code, election clerks recorded the name and an assigned number for each voter when he showed up at the ballot box. When the voter turned in his completed ballot, an election manager wrote the voter's assigned number on the back of the ticket. It would be easy to check the number on the voter list against the number on the back of the ballot to determine how a person voted. The law prohibited the election manager or clerk from opening the ballot, but in a county obsessed with treason, it is hard to believe that some secession opponents would not have been frightened into staying at home election day or into voting "yes."

Considering the lack of ballot security and the fact that the election came just seven months after the fire and the ensuing violence against dissenters, the 25 percent anti-secession vote in Dallas county suggests a deep reserve of white resentment against elite policies on the eve of the Civil War. Neighboring Collin County voted against secession, as did most counties north of Dallas. At least 40 percent of the voters in nearby Wise, Denton, Hunt and Van Zandt counties also voted no. Far North Central Texas represented the most anti-secession region of the state outside the "German Belt" in Central Texas.

Even though most Texans supported the Confederate cause, East and North Central Texas became centers of the anti-secession opposition, with nearly 3,000 deserters making the woods and brush of Northern Texas home. One historian lists Dallas, along with neighboring Wood, Van Zandt, Henderson, Denton, Cooke, Grayson and Jefferson counties as the South's "Deserter Country." Union sympathizers, so-called "Jayhawkers," roamed the nearby Big Thicket country of East Texas during the Civil War and fought pitched battles against various home guards.

Determined to crush wartime opposition, a Confederate militia swept through Cooke County and neighboring communities and arrested more than two hundred people on the morning of October 1, 1862. After trials by a kangaroo court, at least 40 suspects were executed in Gainesville. Confederate sympathizers there shot two others as they tried to escape. Dallas Confederates joined the bloodletting. 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."

The fire and subsequent violence against dissenters suggests how insecure Dallas elites had become about their grip on power as the Civil War began. Traditional elites would again be in charge of the city by the end of the 1860s. Worried that the 1860 fire represented dangerous revolutionary precedent, Dallas leaders tried to dampen its memory. Decades after the Civil War, Dallas leaders filled the city with memorials commemorating the Confederacy's "Lost Cause." Yet, no memorials mark the prolonged civil war that raged between secessionists and suspected Unionists from before the fires of 1860 until Confederate General Robert E. Lee's 1865 surrender. Remembering that past could only raise disturbing questions about Dallas' founders.

Late twentieth century Dallas proved the power of forgetfulness. Commerce Street forms a bridge between a downtown dominated by white-owned businesses and, as it crossed Stemmons Freeway, a poorer and mostly African American South Dallas. The city formerly designated a triangle of grassy land between Stemmons and the Southern Pacific railroad tracks as Dealey Annex, named after the family of the powerful publisher of the Dallas Morning News, George B. Dealey.

In 1991, under pressure from a citizens' group, the city park board renamed the grassy patch of freeway easement "Martyr’s Park" in reluctant tribute not only to the assassinated President John Kennedy but also to Samuel Smith, Patrick Jennings and Cato. Yet, even eight years after the park board approved a new name for Dealey Annex, no marker proclaimed the rare undeveloped Dallas turf as Martyr’s Park and no sign explained the significance of the location or the site’s ambiguous name. To reach Martyr’s Park, one had to pass underneath a bridge, following a pathway smelling of urine. Rather than explanatory plaques, a visitor confronted the empty liquor bottles, abandoned shopping carts and unoccupied bedding that marked the spot as a homeless village.

Dr. William Farmer, a longtime theology professor who once taught a continuing education course on the 1860 fire at Southern Methodist University before moving on to the University of Dallas by 2000, found it predictable that the leadership of the city could not face the past squarely. "Dallas is unlike Chicago — it doesn’t know about its fire," Farmer said. " . . . It’s like a family going through a trauma, but suppressing the memory. The past is forgotten, but essential to coming to health is recalling."

The city landscape, littered with statues honoring the Confederate dead, suggested that Dallas had been the southwestern heart of Dixie. A fog surrounds a past marked by clashes between rich and poor and between secessionists and unionists so that in the twentieth century it seemed as if Dallas had been a nest of Johnny Rebs who cheerfully and unquestioningly followed their leaders to the battlefield. After the Civil War, few recalled the dissenters, black or white, who challenged the Dallas establishment, making sustained resistance in the future more difficult to imagine. Dallas elites failed to suffocate opposition through violence before the Civil War, but by the postbellum period, they had learned an important lesson. The long, difficult project of manufacturing consent had begun.

To maintain its legitimacy, Dallas' ruling bloc could not acknowledge past political division. A combination of economic, political, ethnic and regional tensions heightened by sensationalist journalism and fear over outside events like the John Brown raid formed the combustible elements when a match or cigar butt was thrown atop dry kindling one hot summer day in Dallas.

The violence unleashed by the Texas Troubles eventually proved so embarrassing to one radical pro-secessionist that he devoted only one sentence to the incident when he published his "History of Dallas County, Texas from 1837 to 1887" almost three decades after the 1860 fire. As editor of the Belton Democrat, John Henry Brown had published the infamous "Bailey Letter" a likely forgery that supposedly outlined the details of a planned slave insurrection in Texas. He moved to Dallas in the early 1870s and became mayor in 1885. An amateur historian, Brown published his chronicle of Dallas County in 1887. He barely mentioned the Texas Troubles, preferring more comfortable topics.

"To recount the more recent events preceding the war, the destructive fire of July, 1860 . . . would be to open a question, the discussion of which should be left to a later day — farther removed from the acrimonies of the war and of the actors in those scenes," he wrote. In the next paragraph, after barely alluding to the divisions in 1860s Dallas, Brown painted a picture of sweet consensus in the following years. "When the sectional controversy assumed the character of war, there were probably not twenty bona fide citizens of Dallas County who were not truly and sincerely Southern in feeling and sentiment," he said. This myth of unity rested on a foundation of terror instigated by men such as Brown. The "Southerness" of Dallas could be measured by the length of a hangman's rope.


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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