The Freedmen's Towns That Built DFW Black History
Free Black Americans living in North Texas after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation relied on a series of communities known as Freedmen's towns to congregate, shop, sell goods and services, and build businesses. They were crucial not just to the culture but to the very survival of Blacks in the antebellum period.
Time has paved over these towns, literally and figuratively, as highways, developments and new generations put their stamps on these landmark neighborhoods.
Dallas is in danger of losing this important history as cities and residents don't prioritize preservation, according to George Keaton Jr., CEO of Remembering Black Dallas Inc.
Keaton said his research and tours through historic Dallas Freedmen's towns like the State Thomas area are not enough to preserve this important part of North Texas history.
"[For the] ones still in existence...they are not doing anything about preservation for them," Keaton said. "We have a large influx of people who have come in because different corporations have come, and they want to know and want to learn, but there doesn't seem to be a solid preservation process. I do what I can, but it needs to come higher up from the city."
Keaton has mapped out DFW's seven Freedmen's towns, all of which are still in existence but dealing with different levels of gentrification. Some are well-documented and fairly preserved, others have disappeared into the terrain of the expanding DFW Metroplex.
State Thomas, Hidden In Upscale Uptown
The State Thomas neighborhood once offered emancipated African Americans one of the first free communities in North Texas where they could thrive and build their lives, Keaton said.
Today, the community, which sits just south of Woodall Rodgers and east of U.S. Highway 75, is recognized nationally as a historic district, but it's been a definite victim of gentrification, Keaton said.
Post-emancipation, the area featured clapboard houses created for Black Americans by Black Americans. Today, the upscale nature of developments going into the area has transformed the neighborhood into another tony part of Uptown Dallas.
"As it comes to the State Thomas area, it has been really taken over and that process started in the 1970s," Keaton said. "And it was designed specifically for gentrification to take over."
Over time, properties in the neighborhood were taken under the wings of developers either through outright purchases or eminent domain.
A large sign branding the neighborhood now hangs over an archway leading into a portion of the community, but the structures that once defined the neighborhood and the freed Black Americans who lived there have mostly been erased by decades of development.
Joppa, Texas: The Most Intact Freedmen's Town
Not far from State Thomas, in far East Oak Cliff off Highway 75, is Joppa, pronounced Joppey.
"Joppa is the most intact Freedmen's town in the nation," Keaton said.
When touring the area, which sits near the banks of the Trinity River in Dallas, visitors will find numerous plaques and dedications, as well as historically preserved structures, serving as reminders of Joppa's role in securing freedom for Black Americans in North Texas.
The area's original settlers were made up of African American slaves who were freed from the Miller plantation in Dallas, according to the South Central Civic League.
The roots planted by men and women enjoying liberty after the U.S. Civil War are still planted firmly in Joppa even as other areas fail to preserve as much of their black history, Keaton noted.
The Highway System Cut Up Tenth Street
Oak Cliff is home to a second Freedmen's town, Tenth Street, an area settled by newly freed slaves. The district is still intact and remains a historic area, but there is controversy brewing over how the community will move into the future without destroying its past.
"When it comes to Tenth Street, they are just hacking into it," Keaton said. "Dallas has been instrumental in putting a deck park there, and that is infringing on that community without any concept or idea of preserving the community itself with respect to being a Freedmen's town."
The National Trust for Historic Preservation named Tenth Street one of the most endangered historic places and documented successful efforts among activists and community leaders to halt demolition in the area after realizing 70 of the community's 260 historic homes had already been destroyed.
AIA Dallas blogged about Tenth Street's long battle to stay intact, noting the creation of Interstate 35 in the mid-20th century essentially sliced Oak Cliff and the Tenth Street area in half, beginning the region's slide away from its origins in Black history.
As a result of the growing highway system last century, businesses in the Tenth Street area died, prosperous Black families moved out, and the area began a long descent into a type of disenfranchisement that Keaton and other historians are still trying to stall today.
Deep Ellum: A Historic Black Neighborhood In The Midst of Gentrification
One of the most well-known Freedmen's towns is Deep Ellum, a small district sitting on the east side of Downtown Dallas.
For the past century, Deep Ellum has established its reputation as a Dallas cultural and entertainment district with a penchant for reinventing itself every few decades. For more than 50 years, the area has watched numerous mom-and-pop shops, concert venues and restaurants come and go, only to be replaced years later with newer destinations.
But for Keaton and for Jocelyn and Don Pinkard, who run Hidden History DFW tours in Dallas, Deep Ellum's rising gentrification threatens one of the most prominent African American communities to rise in Dallas post-emancipation.
"Deep Ellum was a Freedom's Town simply by virtue of that is where people were living," Keaton said. "They were working on the railroad as enslaved people and when emancipation came to Texas, it became and remained a Freedmen's town until later development took place in that area."
Deep Ellum became central to African American trade and business after the Civil War and morphed into a historic entertainment district as famous jazz and blues musicians got their starts in and toured the area.
But with the emergence of more office construction and significant mixed-use development in Deep Ellum, Keaton said the area is much further along in terms of gentrification when compared to some parts of historic Black Dallas.
"Some of Deep Ellum is gone, it's past the point of preservation," he said. "There are some preservation guidelines that are being [followed] that they have to keep the facade of the building as it was done originally."
Keaton, the Pinkards and other community advocates fought for a long time to preserve The Pythias building, the first Dallas asset built by an African American architect. The site, now branded The Pittman Hotel after Black architect William Pittman, will emerge from redevelopment as a historical site that retains key parts of its history.
The Hidden Gems: Alpha, Bear Creek And Egypt Town
Decades of development and redevelopment have covered up some of the lesser-known Freedmen's towns that once populated North Texas.
One of the most significant is Alpha, Texas, a town that was once situated at present-day Alpha Road and Spring Valley Road in Dallas, Keaton said.
The town lost its bearings in the 20th century as Valley View Mall, which is now under redevelopment itself, took over the corner of Preston Road and Alpha, pulling the area into a post-modern age that eventually forgot its Black history.
Most signs of Alpha's existence have been erased with time.
Keaton said the only thing really left of Alpha is a historic Black church that has survived about a century of ongoing development and redevelopment.
Bear Creek, on the western outskirts of present-day Irving, is the oldest known Black community in the Metroplex, according to Blacks In Dallas.com. The community launched when a former slave bought land there and started a community where African Americans could live freely even before the Emancipation Proclamation.
Not all of that history has been lost.
"They have reserved a section of the community, and they have a museum [there] and have collected some of the former houses of people who were important ... in the Bear Creek area," Keaton said.
The remaining Freedmen's town is Little Egypt, at Northwest Highway and Ferndale Road, not far from White Rock Lake.
Keaton said a former slave named Hanna Hill and her husband launched the community, and it remained a prosperous place for African Americans well into the mid-20th century.
"It was in existence until 1968 when development came in to buy that area," Keaton said. "It was a Freedmen's town, but it was easier for them to just start over than to put infrastructure into an existing community. So they bought that property and most people moved to the southern part of the town, which is Oak Cliff."
After the area's homes were purchased by developers, most of them were demolished, erasing a large part of Little Egypt's Black history, according to Keaton.
As Dallas moves forward with another decade of development and redevelopment, Keaton said he and other community advocates remain undeterred in their quest to keep the memories and histories of these Black communities alive.
"My organization along with Preservation Dallas fights hard to try to preserve the history of Dallas, not just Black Dallas, but Dallas in general," he said.