Saturday, July 02, 2011

"The Great White Plague": Whiteness, Culture, and the Unmaking of the Dallas Working Class, Part I

In 2006,the University of Texas Press published my first book, "White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, 1841- 2001." In celebration of the fifth anniversary of that work, I am serializing "White Metropolis." Here, I describe how the city's white elites achieved racial and class segregation and the political disenfranchisement of the poor and working class in the early twentieth century.

While Dallas doomsday preacher Cyrus Scofield completed publication of his "Reference Bible," which contemplated the Jewish role in the cosmic struggle between God and Satan, merchant Philip Sanger considered the proper relationship between workers and capitalists in the here-and-now. The Dallas Times Herald heaped praise on Sanger and his wife after an 1890s lawn party for employees of the Sanger Harris department store, a soiree metaphorically reflecting elite views of Dallas’ class structure.

"The merchant princes of Texas," the newspaper said, should be honored for their "solicitude . . . for the advancement and protection of the rights of those in their employ." Even while praising the sumptuousness of the Sanger’s "Night in Venice" party, the newspaper declared that the gala demonstrated that the idea of "republican equality and democratic simplicity are not mere empty sentiments for dress parade, but glorious principles that are part and parcel of" the Sangers’ beliefs.

The Times Herald saw no contradiction in an event of "republican equality" being hosted by a "merchant prince." Industrial age elites sought to conceal emerging class conflict with equalitarian rhetoric. If the Sangers’ lawn party represented republican values, however, an implied hierarchy separated the wealthy host from the indulged guests. With all their noblesse oblige, even the Sangers could not long maintain the illusion that Dallas lived in "democratic simplicity."

"Back in the [1870s] there were no classes," Alexander Sanger wistfully insisted, but by the next decade he admitted that class lines had hardened as elite neighborhoods like The Cedars formed, isolated from the noise and bustle of working class Dallas. Alexander Sanger may have missed Dallas’ supposedly classless past, but his family and their peers came to see hierarchy as a social good. For all their republican/democratic rhetoric, the wealthy were determined to maintain class supremacy.

Philip Sanger proposed using the educational system to create a compliant labor pool. In an 1897 speech to the Commercial Club Directory he called for ending the teaching of "dead languages" at public schools. Working class children needed a new "industrial" school curriculum that would provide "a little more education of the muscle in fashioning constantly needful things . . . a little more drift of the intellectual along the industrial, and a little less foolish yearning after political prominence." Public schools should create an obedient working class equipped only with "useful" knowledge and certainly should not encourage plebeians to demand shared power with self-ordained elites.

From the late 1880s to the 1930s, the Dallas working class refused to comply with Sanger’s dream of an apolitical proletariat. Until the early 1920s, labor — through the Populist, Socialist and trade union movements — convinced much of the city’s middle class that workplace fairness was consistent with American values. This worker/middle class nexus proved powerful. Politicians friendly to labor won elections while strikes forced employers to make concessions regarding wages and the length of the workday. Elites then mounted a counteroffensive, manipulating popular culture to de-legitimize democracy and racialize white workers.

This chapter argues that elites, fearing that the rising political consciousness of white workers presaged the rule of racial "undermen," altered election laws to diminish working class influence. Through institutions such as the public schools, elites discouraged mass participation in politics. In these years, Dallasites were taught that being white meant conformity to the ideas of \apitalism and rule by elites, concepts presented as hallmarks of civilization.

Dallas emerged as a major city in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Powered by the railroads, the population zoomed from 38,067 in 1890 to 260,475 by the start of the Great Depression in the 1930s. At that time, Dallas ranked second to only Houston in population among Texas cities. The largely agricultural frontier town evolved into a metropolitan banking, manufacturing and trade center of increasing ethnic and religious diversity. Late nineteenth and early twentieth century bankers, early industrialists and retailers, with their allies in the Dallas press, had at their disposal a vastly improved communications network with which to extend their ideological influence over the state. Yet, while these elites set aside regional differences, they failed to coalesce politically. Relative elite disunity allowed for greater influence on the part of an emerging Populist-Labor coalition.

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, also mixed religion and politics, rejecting the elitist, apolitical dispensationalist gospel and arguing that the church should "give 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 . . ."

This message enjoyed a built-in audience. Following the arrival of the railroads in the 1870s, many Dallas County landowners saw the value of their real estate explode and became rich overnight. The inflation of land values, however, hurt debt-ridden tenant farmers who outnumbered owners 2,295 to 1,975 by 1900. About 61 percent of Dallas County residents, whether rural or urban, rented their homes. Salary-dependent industrial workers, who now numbered almost 9 percent of the population, struggled to make their average yearly salary of $493 stretch. The boom-and-bust economy from the 1870s to the 1930s deepened the 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.

In Dallas, the Populist movement included not just farmers but also urban workers, middle-class reformers and marginalized black trade unionists. By 1900, a larger constituency existed for such a movement, the city featuring a significantly more complex class system than existed in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1860, more than 60 percent of Dallas County residents were farmers, with another 23 percent classed as artisans or professionals.

By 1900, an increasingly modern urban working class peopled the city. About one-third of Dallas’ 18,393 wage-earners were employed in what the United States Census Bureau called "domestic and personal service," including barbers, bartenders, janitors, day laborers, nurses, policemen and firefighters. Another third worked in "trade and transportation" a census category dominated by teamsters, sales clerks, and railroad employees. Skilled workers — the masons, carpenters, plumbers and mechanics who made up the city’s labor elites — made up less than 25 percent of the population. In the four decades between 1860 and 1900, Dallas transformed from a rural society in which most residents were small, independent producers, owning their own farms or specializing in crafts such as blacksmithing, to a salary-dependent, service-oriented economy.

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.

Dallas Populism and Socialism won substantial middle class support largely because these movements reflected the concerns of their bourgeois leaders. Edwards, the son of a lawyer, received a Harvard education, and briefly studied to become a minister. Carl Brannin, Edwards’ frequent ally, grew up in Cisco, Texas, 150 miles west of Dallas, the son of a horse and cattle rancher who acted as an agent for Eastern landowners. These relatively privileged men empathized with the poor and working class. Edwards lived in the cotton-mill district in South Dallas and saw firsthand the horrors of child labor. "[S]ome of these hovels here in Dallas, managed by the mill, are almost inconceivably crowded, wretched, and filthy," he said. " . . . [W]hen the mill does not run at night, the children hurry home at six-thirty, gobble down their food, and then take to the streets, seeking the electric light and saloon corner as a relief after the monotony of the mill and the misery of their home."

Populism, however, proved less committed to fundamental economic change than to a milder agenda of capitalist reform. Texas Populists viewed politics as thoroughly corrupted by monied interests, but still clung to the hope that real change could be realized through the ballot. Populists proceeded as though grassroots movements, without directly addressing racism, could pressure elites into creating a more equitable society. 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.

In their eagerness to rally the powerful middle class under the labor banner, even the socialists created a movement so broadly based that it could not resolve its inner conflicts. Dallas socialists defined the working class not just as wage earners, but also as the "class who have but little land and [few capital assets] — the small traders and small farmers," according to a 1908 editorial in The Laborer, the city’s socialist newspaper. The labor movement hoped to mobilize wage earners, small merchants and farmers in a common front against the "ruling minority" of capitalists who were growing steadily more "useless and parasitic."

This parasitic class, according to George Edwards, consisted of those few who earned their income by owning rather than working. Opposed to this group were not only wage workers, but an exploited army composed "of professional men, of high salaried employees, [and] of little business men." Edwards saw this ambiguously defined middle class as suffering a "pitiable plight" as they found themselves "[g]round between the capitalists above, who constantly try to ‘freeze them out’ and the workers below who are far more powerful against the small employer then against the big corporation."

As this comment suggests, Edwards knew that the Dallas middle class might not always see its interests as inherently linked to a restless proletariat. Middle managers might see a more attractive immediate payoff in controlling labor costs by holding down wages than in the uncertain gamble of entering the class struggle. Such an unstable coalition may have been necessary in a struggle against Dallas’ powerful oligarchy. Yet, for all their efforts labor leaders won, at best, lukewarm acceptance from newspaper publishers, ministers and other professionals.

Middle class supporters, declaring that workers were not "slaves to be driven by the company," were vital in the success of an 1898 strike by the Amalgamated Association of Street Railway Employees. The Dallas Consolidated Railway Company gave workers a 2 1/2 percent raise and agreed to arbitrate future contract disputes through the courts. Much of the middle class supported Socialist and Populist candidates. Yet, the middle class abandoned unionists during the unsuccessful three-month 1919 strike of Texas Power & Light linemen, who demanded a closed shop, higher wages and an eight-hour workday. Middle class support for the strike collapsed when a June, 1919 clash between strikers and replacement workers resulted in the death of a company security guard.

Internal pressures fragmented the labor movement even as normally fractious elites achieved unprecedented unity in the early 1920s through the auspices of the Open Shop Association. The association arose in response to a limited strike by typographers demanding a 44-hour workweek. Led by W.S. Mosher (whose family played a major part in building Scofield Memorial Church), the Open Shop Association portrayed unions as run by alien outsiders destroying a worker's freedom to follow "his line of employment either in or out of a labor union, just as he saw fit." Such pamphlets aimed at a middle class audience increasingly uneasy over expanding unionism. The Association exploited, in a distorted way, middle-class emphasis on "fair play" by portraying unionists as organized thugs who denied non-union workers freedom of choice.

The Open Shop Campaign aided the formation of a new ruling bloc involving wealthy elites and Dallas' middle class professionals, including ministers and educators. For the first time since the 1880s, membership in Dallas’ major unions declined. An alliance of wealthy and upper middle class reformers then altered the law to undermine working class voters. A 1902 state law opposed by a broad coalition of unions, Populists and people of color, imposed a poll tax that reduced voting by blacks, Hispanics and poor whites.

Texas' 1903 election law allowed major political parties to determine who could vote in their primaries, regardless of the voting rights guaranteed by the 14th and 15th amendments to the United States Constitution. The state Democratic Party followed up this law by establishing a whites' only primary system. Since the collapse of the state Republican Party in the 1870s and the Populists in the 1890s, the Democrats held a virtual monopoly on elective office. The new Democratic rules meant that African Americans in Texas would have no voice in determining who would win statewide office. Although a series of Supreme Court decisions starting in 1927 undermined the white primary, this legislation had a chilling effect on black political participation.

The new state election laws did allow African Americans to vote in municipal elections, but Dallas elites saw to it that the political strength of blacks and poor whites would be diluted. At the turn of the century, the Dallas city council was organized on the ward system, meaning that council members were elected on a neighborhood basis. Middle class "progressive” reformers charged that ward politics served as engines of corruption. According to the reformers, ward politicians were concerned only with the parochial concerns of their neighborhoods, not with the good of the city as a whole. Supporters of the ward system, largely members of the working class, countered that neighborhood-based politics made city aldermen more responsive to the needs of ordinary citizens.

Elites and middle class progressives united behind a campaign to institute a "commission" form of government. The mayor and four commissioners, responsible for finance and revenue, waterworks and sewers, streets and public property, and fire and police, would be chosen in citywide elections, a system, as one alderman charged, that would allow "banks and the Dallas News . . . to dominate all the wards." The commission proposal passed in an April 3, 1906 referendum by 2,183 to 401, an impressive margin rendered less significant by the fact that more than 55 percent of eligible voters did not cast ballots in the election.

Elites and their middle class progressive partners cloaked their campaign against ward government in the discourse of public service. Yet, the new commission consisted of "five men who all represented the commercial elite of Dallas," in the words of historian Patricia Gower. " . . . At-large elections of commissioners watered down the voice of individual neighborhoods and enabled commissioners to prioritize services to downtown and upper and middle class neighborhoods." White poor and working class neighborhoods as well as black communities for years would lack basic services such as modern plumbing, electricity and trash collection.

Following the elimination of the ward system, commercial elites controlled Dallas to a degree not achieved by their peers in most other emerging Southern metropolises. Only Houston rivals Dallas in the cohesiveness of its power brokers in this time period. Houston, like Dallas, adopted a new charter in 1904 under which city aldermen were elected at large. The city of Houston, however, had evolved with no zoning laws, resulting in haphazard housing patterns that diffused working class voters throughout the city and thus diminished the potency of the labor vote even before the charter revisions. Atlanta's ward system, on the other hand, survived well past World War II, frequently dividing Atlanta's moderate business elites into opposing political camps. This division gave progressive groups such as the Commission on Interracial Cooperation a visibility and influence such organizations would not enjoy in the more tightly controlled Dallas environment.

With the Dallas commercial elite firmly in charge of their city, neighborhoods increasingly segregated not just racially, but also by economic class. African Americans concentrated along the city’s floodplains, particularly in a section of North Dallas near the Houston & Texas Central Railroad, bordered by Ross Avenue, Haskell Avenue, and Pearl Street. 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. In 1927 and 1929, whites enforced segregation by bombing and burning the homes of blacks moving into marginal all-white neighborhoods. Dallas set a pattern for the rest of the state, although segregation was a more difficult task in Houston, where the lack of zoning laws meant that blacks and whites had lived in close proximity since the end of the Civil War.

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.

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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