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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.
Juneteenth was celebrated early in a sense when Dr. George Keaton Jr., the founder of Remembering Black Dallas Inc., hosted ...
The Freedman’s Cemetery on Interstate 75 was the first stop on the Freedman’s Town Tour June 9. Mike McGee

When the Southland Corporation began digging for a second CityPlace Tower in the 1980s, the graves of Black Dallas residents were found under the local streets. That discovery spurred the preservation of the cemetery as well as the introduction of laws to protect such grounds from development.

The tour not only reminded those attending what life was like in these settlements, but what has also been permanently lost.

Little Egypt

A trip to Little Egypt, which the doctor proclaimed was home to journalist Bob Ray Saunders in his youth, lead to nothing but a modern outdoor shopping mall. Located north of Northwest Highway, the Northlake Shopping Center near the White Rock Lake region covers much of what used to be the town.

The homes in Little Egypt did not have sewer or water connections, even into the 1960s, when the community eventually dissolved in 1962 to make way for retail zoning. Before the breakup of Little Egypt, there were 35 one-acre lots, as well as a church and a school, according to Keaton.

Currently, Remembering Black Dallas is going through the process to have a historical marker placed at the location of the mostly-forgotten settlement.

On through the day, the tour bus passed through the Caruth region of the city [the Caruth family was probably the biggest slave-holding family in Dallas at one time, the doctor affirmed]; wound around Anderson Bonner Park [Bonner, a former slave, became the most successful African American landowner in the area; Medical City Dallas sits on just some of his former land]; and eventually turned north on Preston Road toward what was Alpha, Texas.

Other freeman’s areas

Not far from the remains of Valley View Mall, The Mount Pisgah Baptist Church building – now home to the Iglesia Caminos Del Misionero – still stands in its original late 1800s spot.

“… We’ll talk about an area,” the guide related as he zeroed in on Alpha. “…They were not so much freedmen’s towns as there were freeman’s areas, and African Americans and Whites lived and farmed adjacent to each other. And they lived in relative peace and harmony, as far as I know and heard,” the unincorporated Alpha being one example of such a settlement.

Bear Creek freedman’s town

A highlight of the tour was the Bear Creek freedman’s town in Irving, founded by both free Blacks and Whites with their slaves in the 1850s. Not only is the community still in existence with some original homes in use, but other structures from the community have been relocated to the Jackie Townsell Bear Creek Heritage Center park. Here, tours are presented about the community as multiple displays revisit African American history within the nation, the state and the city. Exhibits on plantations, Black cowboys and sit-ins were present; examples of family trees, a literacy test and community life abounded.

Joppa

Joppa, also called Joppee, was the last town the tour visited. Established in 1872 and located in Southeast Dallas near Interstate 45, many residents and allies recently fought to keep a cement plant from coming to their already industry-heavy community. Keaton voiced that he had never seen a settlement with so many houses of worship, estimating that there were 10 churches for a populace numbering less than 500.

“I mean, everybody in Joppee has to be saved, I think” he joked about the community that has managed to hold together through so many social changes in nearly 150 years. “They have no excuse not to be saved on their way to the grave.”