Freedman's Towns of Dallas/Fort Worth
Historic tour uncovers Black history in North Texas
MIKE McGEE | 6/25/2018, 10:29 p.m. | Updated on 6/27/2018, 9:05 p.m.
The Dallas Examiner
Juneteenth was celebrated early in a sense when Dr. George Keaton Jr., the founder of Remembering Black Dallas Inc., hosted a busload of history buffs and the curious on his inaugural Freedman’s Town Tour, June 9.
The low-cost tour left the African American Museum at 9:30 a.m. and concluded at 2:30 p.m., with visits to multiple sites throughout Dallas County and Tarrant County where formerly enslaved people created self-sufficient communities that lasted from post-Civil War times to, in some cases, the present day.
Freedmen of Deep Ellum
The Elm Street area, known as “Deep Ellum” according to Keaton due to the Southern Black dialect common to the region, was toured first. The host noted that Deep Ellum began as a freedman’s town. Slaves worked on the railroad before the Civil War, but upon conclusion of the conflict and emancipation, the newly legal citizens either remained in the area where they continued to work or came from East Texas to settle locally.
“Keep in mind, we say ‘freedman’s town’, but it was also ‘segregated town’ and that was the purpose of the freedman’s town because they wanted it to remain segregated,” the doctor noted as he implied freed African Americans wished to establish their own thriving communities.
A standout feature of the Elm Street region is the Knights of Pythias Temple at 2551 Elm St. The building, begun in 1915 in French-inspired Beaux Arts architecture, was described as a glorious showplace designed by William Sidney Pittman, an early African American architect who later became the son-in-law to Booker T. Washington.
“Most Blacks, the first time they rode an elevator, was in this building because they were not allowed to ride elevators in the department stores,” Keaton explained. They were only allowed in the basements to shop for clothing that was irregular or returned.
Of late, there had been threats that the structure, also knowns as the Union Bankers Building, would be razed as the downtown population has grown. However, on June 13 the city council approved $2 million in tax breaks for Westdale Properties over 10 years, which will help convert the temple into The Pittman Hotel while keeping much of the design integrity of the building intact.
“This was the lick, as the young people say,” the tour guide exclaimed. “This was it.”
The first stop where guests were invited to step off the bus was at the Freedman’s Cemetery on Central Expressway. Despite the traffic noise, rising heat and the summer-hot stink of car exhaust mingled with waste from the homeless, the doctor instilled a sense of revered importance into this landmark to those on the tour.
“The Black neighborhoods, the Hispanic neighborhoods, even the Jewish neighborhoods, they were divided by a freeway,” he remarked on the previously common practice of cities across the U.S. digging roads through or near ethnic cemeteries.
“Why was that? … Because they were the people who were least likely to cause a fuss,” he said, later noting that the Temple Emanu-El Cemetery, a Jewish burial site, was also nearby. He spoke further about the modern rediscovery of the cemetery.