The Dallas Examiner
On June 19, 1865, approximately 250,000 enslaved African Americans began learning that they were free. Moreover, they learned that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862, granting them freedom as of Jan. 1, 1863. The news took several months before each plantation owner complied with the order.
Yet despite their freedom, enslaved individuals were advised to stay in their homes for the sake of those who enslaved them and themselves. The general insisted they should continue working as a laborer and receive some type of payment.
Though some African Americans stayed behind, most gathered their families and left immediately. Some left before the general finished reading the order. Many moved to the edges of cities such as Dallas and established Freedman’s Towns. Many of those areas still exist as African American communities today.
Using the skills that they honed through a lifetime of free labor, many African American men became cowboys. Some owned their own ranches and farms, while other worked the land for the farmers or ranchers as horse breakers, ranch foremen and managers and various roles in rodeos. During that time, Black cowboys made up the majority of ranchers, and a large number worked the great cattle drives.
DFW Freedman’s Towns
African Americans formed several Freedmen’s Towns throughout Dallas County and Tarrant County. The formerly enslaved individuals created self-sufficient communities – some lasting from post-Civil War times to present times. The towns were often segregated because the residents sought to form their own independent, thriving communities.
Dr. George Keaton Jr. founder of Remembering Black Dallas Inc., often hosts bus tours exploring the significance of local Freedman’s Towns that can be traced back to 1985.
Freedman’s Cemetery, which sits along Interstate 75, between Calvary Street and Lemon Ave., is a designated landmark. Established in 1861, it was the designated burial ground for African Americans.
The site was once one of the largest Freedmans Town in the country. It is now known as one of the country’s largest freedman burial sites.
“The Black neighborhoods, the Hispanic neighborhoods, even the Jewish neighborhoods, they were divided by a freeway,” Keaton remarked on the previously common practice of cities across the U.S. digging roads through or near ethnic cemeteries because they were least likely to complain.
During the 1980s, Southland Corporation began digging for a second CityPlace Tower. It was then that 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 discovery was a reminder of the history and historic sites that have been permanently lost.
Joppa, also called Joppee, was the first community established by former slaves. It was formed in 1872 on ¼ mile of land that was once part of the Miller plantation. It is located in Southeast Dallas near Interstate 45 – and west of the Trinity River. The unincorporated community was originally named Pool Branch for a nearby pool of water formed from a waterfall. In 1891, it was renamed Joppa after a city in Israel in the Bible whose Hebrew name is Jaffa.
It remains one of the only three Freedman communities that still exist in Texas, according to the Dallas Parks and Recreations Department. It is said to have hosted the first Juneteenth celebration in Dallas.
The Elm Street area is known as “Deep Ellum” due to the Southern Black dialect common to the region. The area 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.
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.
The 1916 Beaux Arts structure is considered the first major city building constructed by Black designers for Black citizens using Black funding.
“The Pythias Temple was designed by William Sidney Pittman, who was the son-in-law of Booker T. Washington,” he explained.
Keaton said that he fought to prevent the temple from being torn down. Preservation Dallas, who helped to save the building, began restoring it in 2017.
“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,” explained Keaton.
African Americans were only allowed in the basements to shop for clothing that was irregular or returned.
In 2018, the Dallas City Council approved $2 million in tax breaks for Westdale Properties over 10 years to help convert the temple, also knowns as the Union Bankers Building, into The Pittman Hotel while keeping much of the design integrity of the building intact.
Little Egypt, which was home to journalist Bob Ray Saunders in his youth, has become 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.
Bear Creek freedman’s town
Bear Creek freedman’s town is in Irving. It was founded by both free Blacks and Whites with their slaves in the 1850s. 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.
Upper White Rock
Upper White Rock was settled near the plantations of Coit, Obier and Caruth. In 1884, the founders purchased the land by White Rock Creek, which sat near an African American burial ground.
Caruth region of the city was once a cotton farm. The Caruth family was probably the biggest slave-holding family in Dallas at one time.
Other freeman’s areas
- 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.
- Alpha, Texas, centered along Alpha Road and Preston Road, was an unincorporated freedmen’s town. Once part of Farmers Branch, it is now a main route between Farmers Branch and Garland.
The Mount Pisgah Baptist Church building – built in Alpha near the remains of Valley View Mall – is now home to the Iglesia Caminos Del Misionero, which still stands in its original late 1800s spot.
“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,” Keaton stated. “And they lived in relative peace and harmony, as far as I know and heard.”
Tenth Street Historic District
A state of Texas marker on the Tenth Street Historic District Freedman’s Town reads as follows:
“The first African Americans to live in Oak Cliff were slaves, brought here by settlers such as William H. Hord in 1845 to work the land. The neighborhood that grew here became known as the Tenth Street District. An important African American enclave within the historically white community of Oak Cliff. It was not until after the Civil War that the Freedmen’s Town began to grow and thrive. Records differ as to when and how quickly African Americans settled here, but by 1900, Oak Cliff contained more than 500 African American residents, almost a sixth of the town’s population. Segregation forced the development of a separate commercial district. The community thrived, and even gave rise to famous entertainers like the noted blues artist, T-Bone Walker, and 1960 Olympic Gold Medal decathlete Rafer Johnson.
“Though the community continued to maintain a strong African American heritage, the construction of IH-35 east in 1955 and integration in the 1960s resulted in the demolition of around 175 original and influenced residents to seek opportunities elsewhere. Residential buildings date to as early as 1910 and are relatively unchanged. Oak Cliff Cemetery, established in 1846 by settler William Beaty, is within the heart of the district near the 1928 N. W. Harllee School. Other significant buildings include the 1889 Sunshine Elizabeth Chapel CME (demolished 1999) and the 1886 Greater El Bethel Baptist Church. The degree to which these historic buildings remain standing and in good repair marks the Tenth Street area as one of the more well-preserved African American communities of this time period remaining in the Dallas Metropolitan area. Oak Cliff’s Tenth Street Historic District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1994 in recognition of its cultural significance and architectural value.”
Sources: “Freedman’s Towns of Dallas/Fort Worth” by Mike/McGee/The Dallas Examiner, Texas Historical Markers, Texas History Online and DallasCityHall.com.