Dallas' hostile racial climate grew harsher in the Great Depression. Because of an oil boom in East Texas, Dallas fared better than most American cities. Even as cotton prices plummeted, the expansion of nearby oil fields prompted petroleum companies, investors and independent producers to move their headquarters to Dallas, which transformed from an agricultural center to "the most important oil city in the world." By August 1932, 787 oil-related companies made Dallas their home base, a ten-fold increase in a two-year span.
Not all Dallas residents, however, shared in the prosperity. Wholesale business fell sharply, from $729 million in 1929 to $48 million ten years later. By 1931, 18,500 unemployed men and women filed for welfare relief at city hall. Employees fired en masse married female employees assumed to be financially supported by their husbands. The same year, after already reducing the salaries of municipal employees between 5 to 20 percent, the city council voted to pay heads of families it employed with food. Blacks suffered more than the rest of the population, constituting half the city's unemployed. Black-owned businesses virtually disappeared, with only one black-owned insurance company (Excelsior Mutual) surviving by 1937.
The harshness of the Depression inspired a degree of interracial cooperation unseen since the days of Populism, but this spirit proved short-lived. In 1934, Carl Brannin led an integrated "sit-in" of between 600 and 700 white and black recipients of federal relief grants at the city hall auditorium, protesting proposed cuts in public assistance.
Brannin's protest lasted 11 days, but local officials retaliated by cutting off electricity and water at city hall and arresting many of the protestors. " . . . [T]hey cut off the fans and locked the toilets, and they wouldn't allow people who were tired from sitting three days and nights to sleep, and if a person left the building, the police stopped him from returning; so finally we were pushed out by the inability to withstand the pressure they put on us . . . ," Brannin said. The interracial cooperation Brannin achieved in the city hall sit-in proved exceptional. White workers and farmers, inflamed by rumors that the Workman's Cooperative League advocated intermarriage between whites and blacks, disrupted a 1933 rally in nearby Lancaster, jeering and throwing eggs at those in attendance.
Seeing blacks as job competition for white union members, Dallas labor leaders in the Jim Crow era either ignored or were hostile to the needs of the black working class. Walter C. Reilly, a Dallas typographer and officer of the Texas Federation of Labor, recalled that Bill Moran, a power in the state's Bricklayer's International Union, insisted "that discrimination was a figment of the Negro's imagination." Black delegates representing segregated locals attending statewide labor conventions had to enter the hotels hosting meetings through back doors, riding up "with the garbage on the freight elevators," according to John W. "Preacher" Hays. A president of the Dallas Newspaper Printing Pressmen's Union and at one point vice president of the Texas Federation of Labor, Hays said white members shuddered at the thought of blacks joining their ranks. "Are there ever going to be negro pressmen, preacher?" he said he was asked. "You think I'm going take a shower with a black?" members snapped when Hays predicted African Americans would eventually participate.
Race divided the working class even as economic elites forged an unprecedented unity. The city's successful campaign to host the state's Centennial celebration in 1936, led by banker and former Klansman R.L. Thornton, resulted in the formation the next year of the Dallas Citizens Council. This group, through its closely aligned and overlapping Citizens Charter Association, would dominate city politics for three decades and allow elites unprecedented hegemony in political affairs. In 1930, elites completed their campaign of de-democratization in city politics by successfully amending the city charter, replacing the "commission" form of government with a council/manager form.
The new city charter, which provided for a nine-member council including three at-large seats was approved by a 2-1 margin, but only 26 percent of Dallas' alienated voters bothered to cast ballots. Most opposition to the new city charter came from working class neighborhoods in south and southeast Dallas. By the mid-1930s, supporters of the charter amendments formed the core constituency for Dallas' bid to host the 1936 Texas Centennial celebration. In this campaign, Thornton and fellow banker Fred Florence led a new, relatively homogenous leadership clique. Florence was Jewish and yet was accepted as part of Dallas’s inner circle.
As another Jewish leader, Stanley Marcus, put it, a Jew could be heard in Dallas if he had a certain amount of "muscle," meaning that he held an executive position in an important business. However, as historian Patricia Hill points out, this leadership group consisted mostly of Gentile men in their forties and fifties who served as the chief executive officers of leading businesses. The leaders of the Dallas Centennial movement saw the fair as a prime opportunity to sell the city to the rest of the world as an attractive site for business investment.
Florence and Dallas Mayor Charles E. Turner submitted a $10 million bid to the Texas Centennial Commission, including a promised $3.5 million in city bonds. Florence, Turner and Thornton committed to this expenditure although the city of Dallas was cash-strapped, recently laying off 10 percent of municipal employees and slashing salaries for the rest by an average of 12 percent. The city's substantial financial promises earned Dallas the right to host the Centennial instead of the less organized delegations from San Antonio and Houston in spite of the vastly more substantive historical claims of those cities. More than 6,300,000 visitors attended the Centennial festivities at Dallas' Fair Park from June 6 to November 30, 1936, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but the fair still lost money. Nevertheless, success in amending the city charter and hosting the Centennial led Thornton, Florence and their allies to institutionalize the Dallas Citizens Council.
Bankers, insurance company executives, publishers and the managers and owners of utility companies made up almost the entire membership of the all-white, all-male Citizens Council. By the early 1940s, more than half the membership did not even live in Dallas, but called the exclusive in-burbs of Highland Park and University Park home. Journalists, educators and ministers found themselves excluded from the organization.
The narrow social base of the Citizens Council smoothed the path to consensus, but also promoted self-delusion. This new leadership clique, Patricia Hill notes, avoided issues "that engendered even minor disagreement . . . The apparent consensus gave the illusion of a small group of men who could do whatever they wanted to in Dallas." Citizens Council support became so essential to any Dallas politician that once a candidate received the clique's blessing he could win office without making a single campaign speech or holding one rally. After two successful anti-union campaigns in the 1930s, elites completely constructed a political apparatus that quietly divided Gentiles, Jews, blacks and Mexican Americans, a subtle structure dampening dissent and aborting cross-racial alliances.
After the United States Supreme Court struck down the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) codes that set minimum wage and maximum working hours standards, Dallas manufacturers of workclothes and overalls immediately rolled back wages to pre-NIRA levels. Dressmakers feared their employers would do the same. Dallas garment workers, making an average of $9.50 a week, earned 40 to 70 percent less than their counterparts in the North. About 100 Dallas dressmakers decided to unionize.
The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) dispatched Meyer Perlstein from New York to organize union locals. Perlstein arrived in November 1934 and within four months signed on 400 of approximately 1,000 dressmakers in the city. The city's dress manufacturers refused to recognize the ILGWU and fired workers suspected of union activism. A strike began in February 1935. Strikers faced a hostile press, the Morning News implying Perlstein was a communist. The newspaper quoted a strikebreaker who responded to union hecklers by taunting, "I might be yellow, but I'm not red."
The garment workers strike re-Semitized union activists in some Gentile minds. About one-third of the union membership was Jewish, as was their most visible spokesman. The Dallas Morning News referred to Perlstein, who had been a United States citizen for 20 years, as a "Russian-born Jew" in its headlines. This label aimed at painting the ILGWU organizer as foreign, Bolshevik and non-white in the eyes of the public.
E.G. Wadle, owner of a factory targeted by strikers, at first refused to answer during a hearing of the Industrial Commission of Texas whether there was any "objection" to Perlstein "because of his being of Jewish blood." Wadle later denied that Perlstein's Judaism was ever discussed. In his testimony before the committee, Perlstein claimed his place alongside Old and New Testament monotheists and Gentile heroes revered in the Protestant tradition. "I am proud of the name 'agitator,'" he said. "I will go further, if there was anyone that ever did help anyone they were called dangerous agitators. Abraham Lincoln was called an agitator; Moses was called an agitator; Christ was called an agitator, and so were many others."
Perlstein insisted that unionism represented the patriotic alternative to Marxism. "The only chance communists have is among unorganized workers, where people are not given the freedom to organize, where they are not given an opportunity to develop their opportunities," he said. "It is those people that fall for propaganda of this type."
Dress manufacturers never lacked for strikebreakers, many of whom were poor Gentile émigrés from rural Texas who sought escape from rural poverty. Factories stayed open and filled orders. Dallas elites successfully depicted the strike as alien subversion. With their strike fund depleted, ILGWU workers voted to end the walkout. Elites soon embarked on a final anti-union offensive to ensure their hegemony.
In 1937, Ford Motor Company officials, hearing rumors that the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) hoped to organize workers at its Dallas assembly plant, organized a brigade of more than 20 company thugs to terrorize union activists. Using blackjacks, whips and lengths of rubber hose, this private police force kidnapped more than 50 people, crippling a dozen, blinding one man and killing another during an anti-union campaign in the summer and fall of 1937. Despite findings in 1940 by the National Labor Relations Board that Ford had been guilty of "indiscriminate ruthlessness and organized gangsterism," the elite-organized thuggery had achieved its purpose, stalling UAW organizing."
After the failure of the garment workers' and Ford strikes, many in the white working class concluded that political activism garnered little material benefit. Demoralized, labor played a declining role in Dallas politics after the late 1930s. If African Americans were to challenge the white power structure, it seemed that they would have to go it alone.
By the 1930s, African Americans had more than cultural resources to draw upon. Few individuals would have as direct an impact on the lives of African Americans in Texas as A. Maceo Smith.
A native of Texarkana, Smith obtained a master's degree in business administration from New York University in 1928. Returning to Texarkana to attend his father's funeral, he intended to stay only three weeks. Appalled by segregation, however, he stayed to fight racism in his home state. Moving to Dallas in 1933, the insurance man resuscitated the Negro Chamber of Commerce, revived the state NAACP, and led the fight to desegregate the University of Texas. Through Smith's Progressive Voters League, Dallas whites grew accustomed to a limited level of black political involvement, a factor that might have made the city in the 1950s and 1960s a less contentious site of the civil rights struggle than other Southern communities. Smith pursued an incrementalist strategy that forged African American unity while negotiating piecemeal reforms with the white power structure. Smith achieved high visibility in his effort to win funding for a "Hall of Negro Life" exhibit at the Texas Centennial Exposition.
Like Patton and Brewer, Smith believed that recapturing history from racist mythology was essential to black Dallas' political growth, even if the exhibit was part of a segregated fair. "Some felt it was another Jim Crow thing," Smith recalled in the late 1970s. "But those of us that sponsored this felt that . . . you've got to start somewhere, you can't start on an integrated pattern . . ." Smith and his allies gathered up photos depicting Negro life in Texas and testified before a joint state legislative committee in Austin requesting a $100,000 grant for an exhibition hall and expenses. Smith was warmly received and won the appropriation.
Smith, however, quickly encountered the limits of cooperation with the white city fathers. In spite of Jim Crow laws, Texas had failed to completely disenfranchise African Americans in municipal elections. In 1923, the state legislature barred African Americans from voting in Democratic primaries. In a one-party state, this law was tantamount to the complete removal of black voting rights. In 1927, El Paso dentist Lawrence A. Nixon, with the support of the NAACP, won a unanimous decision in Nixon v. Herndon, when the United States Supreme Court ruled that Texas election laws denied African Americans their Fourteenth Amendment rights. The legislature passed a new law that allowed rather than required political parties to deny blacks the right to vote in primaries. In 1932, Nixon and the NAACP challenged this legislative dodge, winning another favorable Supreme Court decision in Nixon v. Condon.
This time, the legislature passed a law allowing the Democratic Party to declare itself a "voluntary organization" which could freely choose its membership and qualifications without reference to state law, in full knowledge that the Democratic Party would keep its voter rolls lilly white. The Supreme Court upheld this approach in the 1935 Grovey v. Townsend case. The Democratic Party barred African Americans voters from its primaries until 1944, when the court reversed itself in Smith v. Allwright thus finally killing the white primary.
Even before Smith v. Allwright, however, African Americans could still vote in non-partisan municipal, school board and general elections. To vote, however, blacks still had to pay a poll tax and, by 1928, less than one-third of the potential 10,000 black voters in Dallas were registered. As Negro Chamber of Commerce Executive Secretary in 1933, Smith helped form the Progressive Citizens League, which organized a poll tax payment campaign in black neighborhoods and filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against the all-white Dallas County Democratic primary.
When Texas legislator Sarah T. Hughes was appointed in 1935 by Governor James Allred to preside over the state's 14th district court, a vacancy was created. This required a non-partisan special election. An African American attorney, founder and former president of the Dallas NAACP chapter, Ammon S. Wells, entered as one of 60 candidates for the state House seat. In spite of Klan threats against black voters, Wells finished sixth, drawing 1,001 votes in a race in which the winner polled only 1,860. Smith and the Rev. Maynard Jackson enlisted as Wells' campaign managers, displeasing Dallas' white elites. "Key leaders . . . called us in and said, 'Now, you boys want, you know, Negro participation [in the Centennial.] Now, if you pull this black guy out of the race, you see, you'll get your money . . . We declined . . . and we lost our Texas money for the Centennial."
When the state legislature approved a $3 million appropriation for the Centennial in April 1935, the bill provided no funding for the Negro Hall. Some whites, however, believed black support of the Fair was crucial in the economically uncertain days of the Depression.
Smith won the backing of a white oilman, Walter D. Cline of nearby Wichita Falls, to gain federal money for the Negro exhibit. In return for Cline's support, African Americans launched a campaign to sell $50,000 worth of Centennial Central Corporation bonds as a "show of good faith." With evidence of black enthusiasm for the fair, Cline persuaded Fred Florence and R.L. Thornton to support the campaign for a Hall of Negro Life. The United States Congress approved a $3 million appropriation package for the fair, an advisory committee recommending that a total of $100,000 be set aside for the Negro Exhibition.
The appropriation came only ninety days before the Centennial festivities commenced in 1936. A 10,000-square foot hall was built, officially opening on Juneteenth (the celebration of the day the Union Army first informed Texas slaves of the Emancipation Proclamation on June 19th, 1865).
On opening day, Secretary of Commerce Daniel C. Roper singled out the black exhibit for praise. "No people in all history can show greater progress in their achievement in seventy-three years than can the American Negro," Roper said in an opening ceremony. "This is traceable to their patient, loyal, patriotic attitude toward their country and to their gifts of soul and song." This is precisely the essentializing message Smith, Patton and others hoped the hall would convey, but it would have to compete with the master narrative of white supremacy enveloping the Centennial Exposition.
The enshrinement of the Lost Cause begun in late nineteenth century Dallas reached its architectural apotheosis during the Centennial years. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's unveiling of a massive equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee astride his horse Traveler at the corner of Hall Street and Turtle Creek Boulevard (soon afterward renamed Lee Park) served as a Centennial highlight. A statue representing the Confederacy stood in the front of the center portico of the Centennial Building at Fair Park, while murals in the Great Hall of State depicted numerous Confederate officers. Visitors were left with the impression of Dallas as an unambiguously Southern city, but a sophisticated one that had achieved progress through elite white leadership supported by broad consensus.
More than erasing Dallas' history of dissent, elites also used the Centennial to portray Texas history in stark racial terms. The Anglo defeat of Mexico in the 1830s, visitors were taught, represented a triumph over racial chaos. An historical pageant, the Cavalcade of Texas, told its viewers that Texas history marked the planting of civilization on a colored void. "A mighty commonwealth has been robbed out of the vast wilderness of the Southwest," a narrator boomed during the pageant's prologue.
Once again, the "wilderness" in Dallas popular culture referred to that part of the world populated by Indians, Mexicans and other people of color. Blacks became obsequious bit players and Mexicans turned into invaders in their own country in the Cavalcade of Texas. "Texas pioneer women escape with their faithful slave from the oncoming Mexican army in the Terrible 'Runaway Scrape,'" declared one written description of a scene in Cavalcade depicting the flight of Anglo refugees during the Texas Revolution. The only float acknowledging African Americans in the Centennial opening day parade portrayed blacks picking cotton.
The Centennial echoed what whites learned in their schools and read in their newspapers. Whiteness meant the creation of civilization, defined as the advancement of capitalism. The exposition defined progress as the accumulation of material goods, not as the advancement of social justice. Exhibits trumpeted a mind-numbing array of statistics measuring the forward march of Anglo civilization in Texas, cultural advance demonstrated by beef produced, cotton bails grown and automobiles purchased. The marginal role of blacks as uncreative, unskilled farm laborers stood in contrast to numerous exhibits demonstrating white inventiveness, such as the display of a primitive microwave oven at the General Motors pavilion. Nothing better illustrates the commodity fetishism of the Centennial than the giant cash register that recorded hourly attendance figures. Racial superiority could be thus measured by the spread of consumer products.
Black organizers of the Hall of Negro Life sensed that whiteness defined itself in terms of binary opposition. If whiteness equaled progress, blackness must mean stasis. To portray blacks as a people who had progressed since slavery would directly undermine this view, even if this historical narrative implied that African Americans needed white tutors to achieve civilization. Visitors were hammered by the theme of progress as they entered the hall. At the front door, visitors encountered a sculptured plaster model of a black man "with broken chains from slavery, ignorance, and superstitions falling from his wrists." Pamphlets proudly touted statistics demonstrating declining rates of tuberculosis among blacks and rising literacy rates.
A series of murals along the walls of the lobby by the artist Aaron Douglass of New York became the exhibit's most eye-catching and subversive feature. One mural, the "Negro's Gift to America," portrayed blacks as builders of the country, contributing music, art and religion to American culture. A woman with a baby in her outstretched arms in the center of the painting symbolized "a plea for equal recognition," according to Alonzo J. Aden, a curator at the Hall of Negro Life. " . . . The child is a sort of banner, a pledge of Negro determination to carry on . . . in [a] struggle toward truth and light."
The hall drew more than 400,000 people during the course of the exposition, about 60 percent of them white. Whites often found the experience unsettling. "Many of the white people came in expecting to see on display some agricultural products . . . and 'Black Mammy' pictures, as many of them suggested," recalled Jesse O. Thomas, an exhibit organizer. "They were so shocked with what they saw, many of them expressed doubt as to the Negroes’ ability to produce the things there on exhibit." Earline Carson, a librarian who staffed the information desk at the Hall, remembered the reaction of one white woman from nearby Corsicana, Texas. "She advanced a few feet into the hall and was standing as one transfixed, looking all about her," Carson said later. "All of a sudden she exclaimed . . . 'No! No! Niggers did not do this.'" Other visitors went beyond disbelief and saw a dangerous implication in the exhibit. "Why if you were to give Negroes an equal chance, they would surpass white people," one woman declared.
The Hall of Negro Life stood as an island of integration, the one place where whites and blacks peacefully mingled. Otherwise, African Americans faced the usual, humiliating hassle of finding restrooms and concessions open to them. The Dallas Morning News responded to the hall's dangerous message by heaping ridicule on the exhibit and its visitors, passing no opportunity for juvenile insults. "History of Negroes from Jungles to Now . . . Centennial to be Turned Over to Darkies Juneteenth," one headline read.
Black critics, who saw the exhibit as collaboration with Jim Crow, also attacked the hall. In a letter to the Dallas Express, Charles H. Bynum, a teacher at Booker T. Washington High, dismissed officials associated with the hall as "Uncle Toms" who rationalized the "gross injustices" suffered by black visitors to the fair. Nevertheless, the Hall of Negro Life proved too dangerous to survive. When officials announced the Centennial Exposition would continue in 1937 as the Greater Texas and Pan American Exposition, the hall was demolished, the only original permanent structure immediately destroyed.
Nevertheless, Wells' strong electoral showing and A. Maceo Smith's successful lobbying for the Hall of Negro Life imbued Dallas' black community with an enhanced sense of political potency. If men like Bynum ridiculed Smith's incrementalism, more African Americans now believed that patient political activism would yield tangible positive results. In January 1936, Smith created the Progressive Voters League, an umbrella organization uniting the voter registration and poll tax payment efforts of 52 groups. A poll tax drive, from October 1936 to January 1937 pushed the number of registered blacks to 7,000.
The poll tax drives created an opportunity for African Americans during an off-year municipal election in 1937. When the Dallas Journal reported that approximately 20 percent of the registered voters were black, Smith said, there was "quite a bit of excitement . . . We got 5,000 [black registered voters] and then you've got six or eight tickets running for the [city] council election, you know, you've got something."
An unusually divided white electorate split into five factions. To the city's professional politicians, it was obvious that a larger-than usual black electorate united in aims by the PVL would provide the decisive swing vote. The March 27, 1937 Dallas Express published the PVL's five-point program, which included mild demands such as the hiring of black police officers, construction of a second black high school and increased employment opportunities for blacks at city hall. Smith insisted that any slate wanting the PVL endorsement would have to agree to all five demands.
The leaders of these factions each appeared at the PVL office, Smith said. "They may not admit to this . . . but all their candidates [were] up there [and] their managers," Smith said. The PVL would reiterate their five-point program to the representatives of these competing slates. "These were the five and we'd sit down and say, 'Now, gentlemen, what's your position on these? It's either yes or no.' . . . Each of those tickets endorsed that total program." The establishment press endorsed the Citizens Charter Association, but the PVL backed the Forward Dallas Association, which won five of nine council seats. One of its candidates, George Sprague, was chosen mayor. Within months, the Dallas City Council fitfully fulfilled parts of the PVL's five-point program.
Smith's efforts in the 1930s set the tone for racial politics in Dallas for the next four decades. They also reflect the typical pattern of African American civil rights campaigns across the urban South. The suspenseful path of the Freedom Riders, enduring threats and beatings as they sought to integrate interstate bus travel drew fascinated, horrified or angry television news audiences. The suffering of blacks in places like Birmingham, Alabama, where the bombing of a black church by a white supremacist in September 15, 1963, killed four young girls, drew mostly tears and shame.
But most Civil Rights battles in the South in cities like Dallas, Atlanta and Houston unfolded behind the scenes, decided by middle class black men and women and moderate leaders in the white business community. While Anglo businessmen sought to avoid trouble that might disturb profits, African American politicians in Atlanta and Houston, like those in Dallas, used non-partisan school board and city council races to flex their political muscle. Southern urban black leaders typically negotiated for mild concessions from whites, such as the expanded construction of black-only schools, working within the boundaries of segregation while backing lawsuits aimed at ending Jim Crow through judicial fiat.
Although Dallas' African Americans were still shut out of state and national politics, they comprised 20 percent of the municipal electorate, thus ensuring limits to Jim Crow. Black voting strength in Dallas played a moderating influence in the city, dampening any white impulse towards "massive resistance" to desegregation marking the Civil Rights struggle in the Deep South. Regardless of the PVL's efforts, however, half the eligible black voters did not participate in the electoral process when such a presence theoretically could have made a decisive impact in the 1935 special election.
In spite of Ammon Wells' strong showing, the PVL did not field an African American candidate in the 1937 city elections. A second black high school campus, Lincoln High, was built, and the city increased the number of African American employees by 300 percent, but mostly in "traditional" black occupations such as custodial work. Dallas, however, maintained an all-white police force at a time when cities such as Houston and San Antonio had black officers. Smith's incrementalism quickly revealed its limitations.
On November 23, 1941, Dallas celebrated another centennial. At Fair Park's majestic Hall of State, celebrants commemorated the 100 years that had passed since John Neely Bryan constructed a crude 10 X 12 foot, earthen-floored cabin on the banks of the Trinity River. Those gathered at Fair Park praised the elements they believed made Dallas great — the land, the white pioneers and their religious faith. The service heaped loud applause on the city's business oligarchs," . . . men and women who yet retain the pioneer virtues and faith." Poet Lexie Dean Robertson, however, saw the city as more than the brainchild of its white residents.
Robertson's overwrought verse, "Dallas Articulate," highlighted the city's centennial. "You, too, have built Dallas," she declared. "You, tired woman, bending over a hot sudsy tub/You, worried man, with the unpaid bill in your pocket . . . You, black boy, from Deep Elm/And you, girl, from Little Mexico, /You with your pickaxe, your plow, your adding machine . . . Build a dream bigger than Dallas . . ."
Robertson's view of Dallas history may have been inclusive, but remained laden with racial hierarchy. Sharing a hope for future prosperity, Robertson fantasized that a multi-hued army could create "[a] new dream of a city/Uninhibited by race prejudice and animosity . . ." While black and brown people played their part, however, that role was subservient. The heart of the Origin Myth is its idealizing of hierarchy. The city worked because it was led by a narrow band of elites at the top. In Robertson's poem, whites were men and women, the city's adults. When she refers to people of color, she uses terms like "boy" and "girl." Blacks and Mexican Americans helped build Dallas by being obedient children.
The Dallas establishment celebrated a fantasy future of brotherhood even as the city bared its old scars of hatred and fear. Whites still measured progress in direct proportion to the spatial, biological and cultural distance Northern Europeans placed between themselves and the rest of humanity. History represented the steady march towards a biologically superior tomorrow, in which blacks, browns and other nonwhites would become ever more clever, but still inferior, copies of their light-skinned betters. African American leaders in Dallas accepted their own notion of history as progress. Men like Patton, Brewer and Smith believed that racism and black poverty reflected only poor education. Neither, they thought, were innately part of the city’s economic system. Yet, as early as 1940, A. Maceo Smith and his allies faced abundant evidence that political reform represented a dead end. Institutions changed incrementally, but hearts did not.
Mason, Brewer and Patton constructed an image of the African American as a dignified, durable soul, belonging to a community bound by mutual obligation to fight for justice. White elites had placed their faith in biology, black elites in democracy. This ideology bound together a diverse black community to a remarkable degree during the first phase of the Civil Rights movement of the 1930s and 1940s By the 1940s, Smith and his allies in Dallas had already politicized African Americans to a degree other Southern cities would not see until the 1950s.
What Smith and others perhaps did not see is that white elites perceived black progress as only relative and that African Americans were still viewed as the pupils, not the teachers, of freedom. This patron-client relation set tight boundaries on the accomplishments of Smith's civil rights campaign in the 1950s and 1960s. Many African Americans clung to the patient hope that, with the gradual dismantling of Jim Crow, racism might abate and the antagonistic world they knew would be replaced with what the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s would call the "beloved community." Some leaders became so fired with this vision of future brotherhood, so certain that continued compromise would achieve this result, that they faced accusations of "Uncle Tomism" within their own community.
Statewide, a series of legal victories by the NAACP would cast doubt on the long-term future of Jim Crow. This uncertainty caused deep divisions in Dallas society. A minimal expansion of African American rights continued while traditional elites maintained control. Jews would occupy a particularly ambiguous position, generally supporting Americans integration campaigns, but sometimes serving as Jim Crow's defenders.
Dallas' growing Mexican American population also found they were caught between the polarities of black and white, with statewide organizations like the League of United Latin American Citizens simultaneously fighting anti-Latino segregation while resisting attempts to define Latinos as non-whites. To win inclusion in the white man's club, some Latinos advocated the separation of blacks from the rest of Dallas society. Elites worried whether a bitter struggle to maintain segregation would produce social instability. Under a deceptively calm surface, Dallas' famed consensus slid into chaos.
Hints of this grim future abounded in the early 1940s. The bad housing situation for blacks only got worse. In spite of the Depression, Dallas enjoyed a reputation as an economic Mecca, its population leaping 13.2 percent during the 1930s. By 1940, the city's 50,407 African Americans (out of a total population of 294,734) found themselves crammed into segregated neighborhoods covering a mere 3.5 square miles, with several thousand more living in alleys and shacks in unincorporated areas outside the city limits.
About 80 percent of black homes were deemed substandard. No new housing was being built for blacks, and whites often fiercely resisted the intrusion of African Americans into their neighborhoods. A flashpoint developed in South Dallas. Angry Anglo parents complained that black school children walked through white neighborhoods on their way to school. The city council briefly debated a proposed ordinance that would have specified which streets African Americans could walk on. The Rev. John G. Moore of Colonial Baptist Church proposed construction of an eight-foot concrete or brick wall to solidify the border between white and black.
Tensions only increased as African American families began to move into racial hinterlands around Oakland Avenue, Pine Street and Eugene Street near Oakland Cemetery. An angry mob including "rock-throwing housewives" greeted C.L. Walker and George Johnson as they attempted to move into their new homes in the 3600 block of Howell Street in South Dallas September 3, 1940. Terrorists ignited dynamite between the home of two black families on Hatcher Street two days before Christmas, 1940. Fires and hangings in effigy greeted other African Americans venturing forth from ghettoes. The 18th bombing of the terror campaign rocked South Dallas by late November 1941. Those guilty of the bombing were never apprehended. In spite of the PVL's endorsement of the victorious CCA slate in the 1939 election, the city council never vigorously investigated the bombings. Instead, the council tried to buy back the homes of blacks encroaching on a dangerous racial borderland.
Yet, as elites celebrated Dallas's 100th birthday, the bombings had been officially forgotten. Historical consciousness presented danger. Rather than reaching a "dream bigger than Dallas," blacks saw their hopes tragically deferred. The real city was a violent urban nightmare. Dallas' black community was stronger than any specific political agenda, its roots sunk deeply in a soil of faith in the human potential for change. The city's black leadership again relied on bois d'arc-style endurance, bracing for disappointment yet certain the larger black family would survive. Nevertheless, the gushing of the Dallas Express in 1938 that for Negroes it was a "privilege to live in Dallas" now rang as a hollow lie.
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.