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.
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.
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, 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.”