The Dallas Examiner
“We’re actually the worst city when it comes to preservation,” Dr. George Keaton Jr. remarked during the Sept. 1 opening of the Neighborhoods We Called Home exhibition at Dallas Heritage Village. The Neighborhoods exhibit, a collaborative venture showcasing the history and housing of Black, Hispanic and Jewish neighborhoods of the city, runs until Dec. 30 and is intended to be a balm to the issue that the doctor spoke on.
“And when I go to different events, when it comes to that – to tear down a building – I always say, ‘You need to look at what New Orleans or look at what Boston’s doing.’ Some of those houses go back to the 1600s,” Keaton continued. Although he admitted Dallas is not as old as those cities, he maintained that the core principal was exactly the same. “When you do away with that you’re actually losing the character of a city.”
The doctor is one-third of the developers of the Dallas Multicultural Historical Coalition, along with Debra Polsky and Juanita Nanez. It consists of a trio of focal groups dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the history of the three major marginalized ethnicities of the city.
“I have to say, it’s been a long road, it’s been one of the toughest exhibits to do (that) I’ve ever done. I thought I knew a lot about neighborhoods and urban history – I even thought I knew a lot about African American history; I was the (teaching assistant) for it at UTD for, like, six years with an expert,” Evelyn Montgomery, curator of Dallas Heritage Village, noted as she addressed attendees.
“I thought I understood a lot of things but this has been the most amazing learning experience to me, to see neighborhood history differently, to see how people may feel about their heritage, and that of their neighbors and their friends, and their own parents, in a way I have not seen it before,” she said.
Keaton also spoke to those at the opening.
“My group, Remembering Black Dallas Incorporated, started in 2014, and we have hit the road running since we started, and we do many projects throughout the year, and we were very challenged to do this house,” he said.
The house he referred to is a shotgun house, a style of home many African Americans lived in during the 1930s, removed from a freedman’s town and placed into the Village. The structure gets its name from the design: a narrow home with rooms one behind the other instead of a connecting hallway. It has been said one could fire a shotgun on one end of the house and the shot would travel through all the open doors of the house and out the back door without hitting anything in between. Keaton explained the specific layout beginning with the first room.
“Normally this would be a bedroom/room. The living room would be there on the porch, as you see that’s where the folks gathering was.” The relocated house also contained a bedroom proper and kitchen, much of the wooden sides within layered with wallpaper that replicates the styles of the time.
The small building was filled with maps and scans that listed all of the Black neighborhoods of Dallas, some long gone, such as Freedman Town; others that thrived and changed, like the McShann area of northern Dallas, the neighborhood of well-to-do professional African Americans from the 1950s onward, now home to many Jewish families.
The images and assembled objects only suggest a framework of the past. The significance of the home and its collected objects relies on that past not being forgotten, according to the doctor.
“I think the heritage and culture, it needs to be recognized because if we don’t, you really don’t know where you’ve come from,” he affirmed. “I believe often times not only (in) this type of culture, I believe in carrying young people to the cemetery so they can see their ancestors and tell the stories of what they’ve done, and it instills a source of pride in them because they realize they are connected to something.”
Keaton felt that was especially true for younger African American residents.
“When you’re ostracized in the community anyway for being a minority you can always reach back to that culture and connection of people that were a part of you. So, it kind of helps build the self-esteem of young people.”
Keaton proudly pointed out a copy of The Negro Motorist Green-Book on display, the famous guide published to inform Black travelers of the best and safest routes during trips in the era of Jim Crow laws. Alongside the guidebook there are framed headlines from local Black newspapers of the period as well as original artwork that would have typically been found in homes from the early 1900s to the 1930s.
The doctor also commented that he fought to prevent the Knights of Pythias Temple from being torn down. 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. “After much ado, with the help of Preservation Dallas, they were able to save the building. They are now restoring it. They are building some kind of multicultural, multi-complex behind it. There’ll be businesses, and there’ll be living and shops, and so it’s going to be a viable building.”
Keaton said he took great pleasure in being able to share the history of his people, but he conceded that there was still much preservation work to do and he could not be everywhere at once to do it.
“Right now I don’t have enough people to do interviews for elderly people, who have the history about Dallas, to go around and interview,” he remarked on the challenge of keeping and maintaining a record of oral history. “We need volunteers for things like that.”
The stories would then need to be transcribed into what will eventually be a published book.
Remembering Black Dallas also needs speakers for its activities throughout the year. “We just need people in all aspects, and that’s the key.”
More information on Remembering Black Dallas can be found online at http://www.rbdallas.com.
Other events occurring as a part of Neighborhoods We Called Home exhibition include a roundtable discussion on community history that will take place Oct. 19 at 6:30 p.m.
A public scanning day, created to preserve images and documents held by private individuals, will occur in Browder Springs Hall on Nov. 5 between 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. The resulting scans will be sent to the appropriate exhibit collaborator for historic preservation within their permanent collections.