Why Young Black Professionals Are Wary of Dallas
More African-American people than ever are moving to the city—but not without apprehension.
Ken Reeves came to North Texas six years ago as a human resources executive. Reeves says he initially was hesitant to leave Houston. There, his family lived in a diverse upper-class neighborhood with great schools in Sugar Land. His immediate neighbors included families who were white and black, as well as families from India and China. When Reeves relocated to Fort Worth, his housing decision largely was driven by the quality of schools for his two children, who are now ages 12 and 4. That led him to North Richland Hills, a mostly white suburb.
“Nobody in our community looks like us,” says Reeves, now vice president of human resources for YMCA Fort Worth. “On Monday through Friday, when we’re out and about in our daily lives, it’s very rare that we see another African-American.” The family joined a black church, and that helps fill the void, but Reeves still worries about the impact on his children. “When they look around our neighborhood, it looks like the majority of successful people don’t look like them.”
Reeves says he believes the area suffers from not having more integrated, diverse communities. Though he hasn’t had many blatantly racist encounters, he has had several like the one that unfolded in downtown Fort Worth, while he stood outside his BMW in a suit, pumping gas.
A white man in his 60s pulled up in an expensive SUV. His eyes kept falling on Reeves as he took in the car and the suit. “What do you do for a living?” the man finally asked. Reeves answered politely, then drove away.
“It was as if he was surprised to see an African-American who drove a nice car and had on a suit, like it wasn’t that common here,” Reeves says. “While I don’t consider that overt racism, my question to myself was, ‘Would he have even noticed if I was white?’ ”
Something similar happened to one of the city’s best known black residents, former mayor Ron Kirk. While mayor, Kirk was dressed in a tuxedo at a charity event, standing beside his wife, who was wearing an evening gown. A man walked up and tossed his keys to Kirk, mistaking him for the valet. About that time, the real valet drove up with Kirk’s BMW. The mayor climbed into his car and drove off, carrying the man’s keys with him. As Kirk glided across Stemmons Freeway, he rolled down the window, cocked his arm, and flung them out.
Kirk, now the U.S. Trade Representative under Obama, says the city was struggling with the same racial issues when he arrived in the 1970s as a young lawyer. Race was still a top issue 20 years later when he ran for mayor. One of his campaign slogans was taken from an African proverb: “Two people in a burning hut don’t have time to argue.”
“Dallas, regrettably, has had its national reputation burnished by a number of very public racial squabbles and has been pictured as a city at war with itself,” Kirk says. “When I ran for mayor, it was one of the things I hit head-on, that we needed to move beyond that.”
City leaders have long envied Atlanta and its more progressive race relations, viewed as the “city too busy to hate,” Kirk says. “Atlanta is one of the few unique cities in America where almost everyone sitting around the table has a college degree. When everyone has the common experience of higher education, it’s much easier to bridge the differences. Dallas has never really embraced its responsibility to educate an increasingly ethnic population.”
Atlanta has several historically black colleges, as does Houston, with Texas Southern University. “That school has produced an impressive generation of black leaders that has populated their business and political class,” Kirk says. “Up until the point when I was elected mayor, there wasn’t a single black elected official from Houston that didn’t come from Texas Southern.”
Dallas, on the other hand, didn’t begin to sow the seeds of its first four-year public university until Kirk’s term as mayor in the 1990s. That’s when the city and other politicians, like Senator Royce West, put in motion the plan that resulted in the fledgling University of North Texas at Dallas, located on the city’s southern side. The city’s lone black college, Paul Quinn, long has had roots in corruption and only recently has been turned around under the leadership of president Michael Sorrell.
“The city has had Paul Quinn for barely a generation,” Sorrell says. “So you really haven’t had that opportunity to create an affluent, homegrown, upwardly mobile black middle class.”
Kirk says he wasn’t the city’s first black mayor, but it’s fifth. Consider, he says, Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of Atlanta. He was born in Dallas. Then came Tom Bradley, the first black mayor of Los Angeles, born in Calvert, Texas. There was also the charismatic Willie Brown, the first black mayor of San Francisco. He was born in East Texas. And Emanuel Cleaver, the first black mayor of Kansas City. He was born in Waxahachie.
“Talent goes where it’s going to flourish,” Kirk says. “If you don’t embrace and nurture your local talent, it will leave.”
There are those who have left and come home again. They are among a growing group of young black professionals who grew up on the city’s southern side, went off to first-rate colleges, and have returned to buy homes, work, and raise families in Dallas.
Among them is Kevin Curry, a DeSoto High graduate who went on to the honors business program at the University of Texas and then to Harvard Kennedy School. Curry, 30, returned to Dallas, bought a condominium downtown, and works as a senior communications and marketing analyst for Dell.
“There are other places around the country and around the world that I could have gone and lived, and I chose to come back to Dallas,” Curry says. “I like the city. I like the people. It’s a great place to be.”
Curry acknowledges that it might be harder for black professionals to find their social niche in Dallas than some other cities. But the scene is here, if you know where to find it. His social life is, in part, dictated by groups such as Facebook and Meetup.com, which cater to black professionals, sending out texts to announce gatherings at House of Blues, Zouk, or Ghostbar, Curry says.
Cedric Mims is also on the list. He graduated from Cedar Hill High School, received a law degree from Pepperdine University, then was ready to come home. “I love this city,” says Mims, 30. He started the Mims Law Firm and recently was appointed a judge in Cedar Hill. “I cannot imagine living anywhere else.”
And then there is Taj Clayton, who is running for Congress, vying for Eddie Bernice Johnson’s seat. He moved with his family to DeSoto when he was 18 years old. Then he went off to Harvard. After Harvard Law and a stint in Boston, Clayton and his wife, Tonika, also a Harvard graduate, decided to move to DeSoto and build a home in a gated community with a mix of black and white residents. The Claytons picked Dallas over other cities, believing it would be the best place to raise their children, ages 6 years, 3 years, and 4 weeks.
When Clayton ran around the track at the DeSoto Recreation Center, he watched the 9- to 11-year-old boys gather to play basketball. They started and ended practice with a prayer.
“There is a strong sense of community here,” Clayton says. “Even though we have problems in this area, we’re proud of this area, and we’re willing to fight for this area.”
Part of the problem with Dallas’ reputation among black professionals, Clayton believes, is that the southern section of Dallas is the most identifiably black area in town. And it has long been neglected by the city. It does not have the type of development that unfolds across the city’s whiter north. He recalls a conversation with an older white professional who noted Clayton’s steady progress at the Dallas law firm Fish & Richardson, where he is the only black attorney in the Dallas office.
“Hey, Taj,” the colleague said. “When are you going to leave the south side and move up north with us?”
“The feeling is no one in their right mind would want to move south,” Clayton says. “That kind of stuff is troubling to me. I’m tired of all the lip service about trying to change things down here, without any follow-up.”
The future of the city, Clayton believes, is tied to the future of its south. The lack of opportunities for such a large segment of the black population is holding the entire city back, in image and in actuality.
“As more of us live here, we have the opportunity to make things better,” Clayton says. “We won’t need to recruit black professionals from Chicago or D.C. We’ll grow them from here, from home.”
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