Twelve years ago, Dallas County Commissioners confronted an ugly reality of the city’s past. In the Dallas County Records Building, a metal plate screwed into the wall above a water fountain became dislodged and fell. Behind it were traces of a Jim Crow era “Whites Only” sign. The sign, a relic of a past Dallas would like to forget, immediately sparked cries for its removal. After all, removing indicators of the past, especially when they are less than flattering, is something of a Dallas specialty.
However, the Commissioners Court, in an effort spearheaded by John Wiley Price, voted 4-1 to keep it. A plaque was placed above the sign detailing its history and explaining the reasoning for its continued display. “The Dallas County Commissioners Court has chosen to leave the remnants of this sign in its original location to remind us of this unpleasant portion of our history,” the plaque reads. “If we cannot remember it, we will not learn from it, and we will not appreciate or respect the rights and the responsibilities that we enjoy.”
In 2005, artist Lauren Woods wanted to go beyond the plaque. Her idea was to turn the water fountain, and the remnants of the “Whites Only” sign above, into a teaching opportunity. She proposed that the fountain become an art installation. The premise was that when someone pressed the button for a drink, a 45 second video would be displayed on the surface of the fountain with footage of Civil Rights protesters being sprayed with water hoses. It was her way to “retell the story of that era for the newer generation,” as she said in an NBC5 interview at the time. “Something like this is a living piece of history. In a museum it can act as a tombstone which can create a sort of apathy and distance.” Eight years later Woods’ installation, Drinking Fountain #1, was finally unveiled.
More recently, symbols of the nation’s segregated and slave-owning past have again forced their way to the fore. And just as with the water fountain, many are calling for their removal. In some instances, like taking down the Confederate battle flags in front of government facilities in South Carolina and Alabama, removal is warranted. Locally, the desire to expunge the Confederate past has been echoed with cries to remove monuments to the Confederacy. There have been online petitions calling for their removal, as well as outright defacement. The statue of Robert E. Lee in the park of the same name in Oak Lawn was spray painted with the word “Shame,” and the Confederate Soldiers Monument on the south side of the old courthouse in Denton’s square was met with a similar treatment. “This is racist” was scrawled in red across it.
The vandalizing of these statues reflects the controversy in which they are steeped. Why should symbols of the Confederacy hold a place of prominence in our society in 2015? Though widely condemned, these monuments continue to stand, often very publicly, as reminders of a dark past. But while the reasonable solution for many is to simply remove the monuments, perhaps, as with the water fountain, destroying these kinds of reminders misses an opportunity to learn from that difficult history.
Dallas’ history of segregation is not often spoken about. As a southern city, most know that Dallas was firmly rooted in the Jim Crow South, but just how entrenched it was is frequently overlooked. The lynching of Allen Brooks in downtown in 1910, the prominence of the Ku Klux Klan in city politics and beyond, and the integration of public schools in 1971, 17 years after Brown v. Board of Education, are either conveniently ignored or considered taboo. (Public schools are still effectively segregated; less than 10 percent of students in Dallas ISD are white.)
These are just a few examples of the city’s racial history. But Dallas’ segregation is not limited to its past. Rather, the city’s history factors heavily into the present divide between North and South Dallas. Yet, this correlation is drowned out by the promise of the future that continues to bellow from various city leaders. Dallas’ attitude toward its past seems to suggest that there is no need to examine of how we came to be.
John Wiley Price and the county commissioners were right to leave the remnants of the “Whites Only” sign up in the Records Building in 2003. It gave the Dallas a rare opportunity to confront its past. City officials today should follow their example. It would be remiss of them to heed the calls to remove the imagery of the Confederacy that exists. Instead, they should be used as a tool with Drinking Fountain #1 as the benchmark.
Open the Confederate statues and memorials to artist interpretations. Woods’ direct, unfettered installation on the water fountain is precisely the approach that should be taken with these monuments of the past. Let them be transformed into a teaching opportunity rather than remain symbols of oppression. While the subject matter may remain offensive to some, it’s important that it be confronted and discussed openly rather than be complacently unseen, or worse: forgotten.