By MIKE MCGEE
The Dallas Examiner
During a list of special presentations commemorating Juneteenth at the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, along with bilingual gallery talks in the third floor Pivot to America Wing, documentaries highlighted a context for life in the city between the Civil War and WWII. It also offered free admission on June 19.
Among the featured presentations was the documentary, Rising: The Hall of Negro Life, in which directors Lindell Singleton and King Hollis created an audio-visual mosaic that balances contemporary interviews with vintage photos and motion pictures.
The film explores the development of the Texas Centennial Exposition in 1936, as well as the social and political battle to create the Hall of Negro Life building, while under the expansive umbrella of the segregated society of the era.
Willis Winters, director emeritus of the Dallas Park and Recreation Department, discussed in the film the why and how of Fair Park hosting the exposition.
“Nineteen thirty-six, as we know … it was the year the state of Texas, the Republic of Texas, was celebrating its 100th anniversary of its independence from Mexico,” he said, “And Dallas put in a bid that was a very interesting process.”
He described the vision of the Texas Centennial Commission as a “regional world’s fair.” However, the odds were against the city getting the celebration since it had no clear historical claim.
“Because the town of Dallas wasn’t even founded until six years after The Battle of San Jacinto and the Alamo,” Winters continued.
In the eyes of the commission, the frontrunners to the hosting of the event were Fort Worth and Austin; the ‘Where the West Began,’ and the state capitol, respectively.
“… And they said, ‘Dallas, what have you got?’” recalled Donald Payton, senior archivist and Texas historian. “… And R. L. Thornton said, ‘We’ve got the State Fair and we’ve got a suitcase full of money.’”
But as Singleton – also the writer and narrator of the film – explained the exposition and the Hall of Negro Life was a larger symbol than a regional contest win.
“Dallas is famous for a lot of things,” he voiced, with a nod to the Dallas TV show, blues music and the Dallas Cowboys. “But what if I were to tell you that Dallas was famous for the spark that became the fire that lit the Civil Rights Movement in America?” he offered.
Even before the spark though, the exposition was about one major thing considered Peggy Riddle, director of the Office of History and Culture in Denton County. It recognized a break from Mexico.
“I think it was more trying to celebrate that heritage, and more the Anglo heritage, than any other heritage,” she said.
Starting from a position of exclusion – which included the loss of promised funding and the rejection of “Negro participation” – city leaders, headed by A. Maceo Smith and Maynard Jackson, took the initiative in fundraising and developing a showcase for African American achievement within the exposition.
“A. Maceo Smith was probably one of the most accomplished Black males, both socially and religiously,” affirmed retired Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson. “He was very active in his church, very active in civic organizations, and then I noticed that whatever else was going on in the city, he was always consulting.”
After a difficult but successful campaign to get the hall built, it was time to polish the jewel of Black life and history in America, filling the hall with exhibits on science, art, agriculture and industry. It was the first building of its kind in the nation.
“You had some local sort of documents and pieces that talked about what African Americans had contributed to the history of Texas,” said Dr. W. Marvin Dulaney, deputy director and C.O.O. of the African American Museum of Dallas. “In fact, they even highlighted some of the Black heroes of the Texas Revolution.
“So it shifted the narrative because it displayed what African Americans had done in those exhibits … it just put it out there for everyone to see.”
For five months, the Hall of Negro Life was a modern, art deco showplace of Black accomplishment, standing with equal importance as other showcase buildings such as the Centennial Building, the Hall of State and the Magnolia Lounge.
The Federal Theater Project performed Macbeth in the Fair Park Band Shell. The production featured an all-Black cast directed by Orson Wells, per the Library of Congress online.
All of this, despite the annual State Fair of Texas allowing only one day for Black attendees to enter Fair Park.
“The Hall of Negro Life was a watershed in African American history and of course particularly here in the state of Texas,” Dulaney mentioned in one segment of the film.
“It, indeed, was one of the first times that we get to see an institutionalized version of the African American history and culture. It brings all these people together, across the state of Texas, to meet and plan strategy to end the White Primary,” he continued, highlighting a tool of the time that kept state government power in the hands of the White majority. “…To integrate the University of Texas, and of course, the struggle in general to promote civil rights for African Americans.”
The artists and exhibits presented within the hall, what became of the hall itself, and the social ripples post-exposition are all best illustrated within the documentary.
Nevertheless, the tale of Black representation during the observance of the state’s centennial, in the midst of The Great Depression and the strengthening of Nazi Germany, is a tale larger and more complex than mere sketches and newsreel footage can tell. There is some meaning in the fact that the African American Museum now stands in the approximate spot where the Hall of Negro Life once stood.
Rising: The Hall Of Negro Life is also supported by a podcast series, The Rising Podcast, on Soundcloud.com. More information about the documentary can be found at www.risingdocumentary.com.