By DIANE XAVIER
The Dallas Examiner
Trying to imagine what Texas was like 100 years ago may be a difficult task. Old City Park provides visitors a first-hand account of life in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The historic site is Dallas’ first city park. Developed in 1876, it houses over 30 historically preserved buildings dating back to 1840 and it sits on 20 acres of land located at 1515 Harwood St.
Considered the secret gem of Dallas, the park was recently renamed from Dallas Heritage Village to its original name, Old City Park, in order to help visitors, connect with the past and create a better future for all.
Sarah Hambric, deputy director of Old City Park, explained the site’s significant value.
“Old City Park is considered the secret gem of Dallas because we are one of the largest green spaces located near downtown Dallas that a lot of people really don’t know about or have only visited maybe one time in fourth grade a long time ago,” Hambric said. “So, when we have visitors come for the first time, or their 50th time, they love to be able to be here amongst our 100-year-old trees in our large green space and the history and education we have on site. The preservation that we have been able to accomplish through managing this park space has protected not only our historic trees, but these historic buildings and you won’t find a park like us in Dallas.”
Each year, around 50,000 visitors tour the park, including 20,000 children from area schools. In honor of Juneteenth, the park announced that it would allow free general admission to reach a larger audience. Admission is free Thursday through Saturday beginning on June 19.
The park offers tours, educational programs, workshops and special events. On school field trips, students get to become Dallas history detectives as they experience how life was different centuries ago. Hands-on blacksmithing classes are also available. In addition, craft, historic and STEAM based workshops are offered throughout the year.
Visitors are free to enjoy the park in a variety of ways.
“If people just want to avail themselves to learn about history, then they can do that. If they just want to come and have a picnic, then they can do that. If they just want to come and hang out with their friends, then they can do that,” said Michael Duty, chairman of the board for Old City Park. “If they want to come and walk their dog or throw their frisbee, then they can do that. Basically, it lets us see how Dallas lived in that time. Now, we are in 2022 and there is a large population that might not relate to that history. We want to open that history up. It really is an oasis, and you can see the Dallas skyline from here.”
He discussed the park’s history and how it was saved before the introduction of the interstate highway when I-30 was created.
“Old City Park began almost 50 years ago when a group of women decided to save a house called Millermore, a plantation house,” Duty said. “So basically, they acquired it and then disassembled it, kept it in storage for a couple of years and finally worked out negotiations with the park board and city to move it here and to create what they call Old City Park. This was also the site of the zoo. After Millermore was established, not everything was from Dallas and so they went around North Texas and found a church, a school, and everything had to be acquired.”
Duty said the buildings at the park range in their terms of construction from the 1840’s to 1910. The site also has Dallas’ first toilet in 1910.
The park also offers Black history tours every Sunday.
“This is specific to the Black history of Dallas,” Hambric said. “I think a lot of times we are not getting the full picture of not just local history but of Texas history, so we want to make sure that we are providing contacts and we are providing specific history to the Black residents of Dallas.”
The Black history tours highlight the struggles, triumphs and history of the residents of Black Dallas. Some of the tours consist of visits to the Miller Cabin, Gano Farmstead, dentist office of the first Black dentist in Dallas and tours that showcased the Slave Dwelling Project, which tells the stories of the enslaved African Americans at Millermore and the Gano Farmstead.
Also, tourists get to view a cotton field, which Hambric said is important since most people don’t realize how hard and laborious it was for slaves to pick cotton in the Texas heat.
The Black history tours are usually two hours long throughout the year except in summertime when it is not as long due to the summer heat.
“What is very important to us is that we are telling the full story starting with our 1840s log cabin which was home of enslaved people,” Hambric said. “And moving through Black History in Dallas, including stories of the KKK and really going through buildings that not only reflected Black history, but that African Americans in Dallas lived in, which is the specific focus of that tour.”
During Juneteenth, Duty said they got to feature a special living room to the audience.
“We featured an enslaved person’s living room when they heard about the emancipation proclamation,” he said. “She did an interview with the WBAP in the 1930s and we put up a plaque highlighting that.”
Tourists can also see the film of Harriet Mason, an enslaved African American woman and her reflection at the site.
“We offered showings in here for free, but it is Harriet Mason not only discussing her experience of enslavement but also what she did when she received her emancipation proclamation and also talks about what her life was afterwards and where she went,” Hambric said. “What is amazing is that her daughter became college educated and her daughter actually has a school named after her. So, she was one step and generation away from her daughter being enslaved and was able to create such an impact on her community.”
According to Duty, history needs to be told accurately in order to heal.
“In telling history, we want to tell the truth, and sometimes the truth is not as pretty as we would like it to be,” Duty said. “We are committed as an institution to telling all these stories and we think people are better off knowing.”
Hambric said the park has received praise for its work on educating the community about the history of African Americans and what life was like back in the 19th and 20th centuries in Texas.
“We have had positive feedback from the community in that not only they feel connected but are thankful that we are one of many institutions committed to truthful history,” she said. “A lot of feedback I get is ‘I had no idea XYZ happened. I had no idea this building was the site of enslavement.’ To me, this is what this is really about. We are telling the truth about history to create conversation.”