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Arts & Entertainment

How Dallas Won the Right to Tell Its Own History

How did a seemingly innocuous plan to raise some historic markers in a handful of parks become a fight for the right to tell Dallas’ history?
By Peter Simek |

There was an item missing from yesterday’s City of Dallas Parks and Recreation Board agenda. It was briefing about a gift two philanthropic foundations, the Boone Family Foundation and the Rainwater Charitable Foundation, planned to give to the city. The gift seemed admirable enough.  The foundations wanted to install markers in seven city parks that would acknowledge their history as historically segregated African-American parks. Sparked both by the redo of Uptown’s once black-only Griggs Park in 2013 and the Facing Race conference held in Dallas in 2014, the intent was to do just that: face up to this city’s racial history, acknowledge the ignominy of the past and celebrate the role these parks played in shaping this city’s African-American community.

But while the board tabled the briefing on February 4, resetting it for February 18, the briefing didn’t happen. Instead, the two artists who were commissioned by the two foundations to prepare the text for the historical markers addressed the board. They spoke of manipulation, cooption, explicit and implicit censorship on the part of the two foundations. They outlined a research process that degraded into prolonged silences, stop orders, and backroom character attacks that led to standoff between the artists and the foundations.

“We stand here today to say that this is a larger issue than our project conflict,” said artist Lauren Woods, whose full statement to the board was read by three different speakers. “This is a question of who gets to write the public history. Who will right the public history? This is an issue our city has struggled with for too long.”

How did a seemingly innocuous plan to raise some historic markers in a handful of parks become a fight for the right to tell Dallas’ history? The answer to that questions strikes to the heart of the influence philanthropic organizations hold over Dallas government and the way this city values its cultural workers.

In 2014, Woods and Mulcahy were invited by the two foundations to submit a grant proposal to join the historical markers project, to provide supplemental research about the parks, create an expanded website telling that history, and develop a school curriculum about the parks. However, when they saw the draft texts, they became concerned. There were inaccuracies, troubling tone, and inappropriate descriptions of some of the neighborhoods. Norma Adams-Wade, a freelance columnist for the Dallas Morning News who had been commissioned with preparing the texts, would later complain in a Dallas Morning News article that the foundations had pushed back against difficult references to racially motivated bombings in South Dallas and white flight. Woods and Mulcahy expressed a desire to take the lead on a redrafting of the historical markers in line with the scope and intention of the website and curriculum project outlined in their original grant proposal. The foundations agreed.

Both Lauren Woods and Cynthia Mulcahy have a long and renowned track record working on socially engaged community and conceptual artworks. Woods is perhaps best known for her A Dallas Drinking Fountain project at the Dallas County Records Building, which appropriates a rediscovered “white’s only” sign above a water fountain into a video installation that depicts Birmingham police spraying fire hoses at Civil Rights activists. In addition to a career as an art dealer and running an art gallery, Mulcahy’s work includes researching and revitalizing the Japanese Garden in Kidd Springs Park and staging a community square dance at the Audubon Center, a project that was funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation. At the time, Woods and Mulcahy’s park marker project was poised to be at the forefront of a broader national movement by municipal, state, and national parks departments to reframe how the history of the south – from slavery to Civil Rights – is recorded and communicated in public spaces and through public monuments.

Originally, the foundations wanted the markers to be completed in time for an unveiling during the Facing Race conference. People from around the country would be heading to Dallas for the event, and the park markers would be a demonstrable “win” for the conference promoters. But as Mulcahy and Woods began to dig into their research, they discovered that much of the history of the parks had either omitted from other historical accounts or inaccurately reported. They pushed for more time.

“We asserted that due diligence and justice for this history meant exhausting available archives and getting a good cross section of oral interviews and input from residents who remember these parks before they were desegregated,” Woods said. “That what was important was that we do it right rather than do it fast.”

Woods and Mulcahy scoured municipal and state archives, walked neighborhoods, interviewed homeowners, and dove through boxes of family photos. In some cases, neighbors had reservations about who was trying to tell their history and why the artists wanted to hear their stories. But Woods and Mulcahy assured the residents that they were trying to tell the whole history of the parks.

“I had to put my reputation on the line,” Woods says about convincing members of the communities around various parks to speak with her.

What they discovered was more than just a history of Dallas segregation. These historic parks were vital to the communities in which they existed. They were recreational centers, sure, but also gathering points and organizing grounds. They learned that some of T-Bone Walker’s first performances took place in Eloise Lundy Park in the Bottom. They learned that Will Moore Park was named after an NAACP activist and an early leader in the campaign against poll taxes. In some cases, they learned that the initiative to secure funds to establish the parks represented some of the earliest instances of political organizing in Dallas’ African-American community.

In November 2014, Mulcahy and Woods handed in the first draft of their makers. The drafts were longer than the 250 words the foundations had initially asked for, but the artists pointed to the precedent of state historical markers that contain anywhere from 400 to 800 words. According to the two artists, when they handed in their drafts, Jeremy Smith, executive director of the Rainwater Foundation, told them they did a “great job.” But then, less than two months later, in January 2015, the Rainwater Foundation sent a letter to the artists informing them that the project was suspended. Funding for continuing work on the website and developing the school curriculum was cut off. Woods and Mulcahy suddenly found themselves kicked to the curb.

It is difficult to sort out exactly why the relationship between the artists and the foundation disintegrated. Boone Family Foundation executive director Cynthia Yung denied multiple requests for an interview. Rainwater executive director Jeremy Smith told the Dallas Morning News that the artists missed deadlines and claimed that he wasn’t aware of a conflict about the markers’ content. Smith has not returned my calls since the Dallas Morning News article first appeared.

The artists describe a different scenario. After their project was suspended, requests for meetings were dodged. It took six months to set up a meeting with the foundations, and when they met, they were informed that Uptown Dallas, INC, which had merely been the artists’ fiscal sponsor – serving as a 501(c)3 go-between to funnel the Rainwater and Boone grant money to the two artists – was now moving the project forward. The foundations told them they were going ahead with smaller signs and using their own texts. According to the artists, they were told their texts were “too much about race.”

During the summer of 2015, the foundations sent a hard drive via Fed-Ex to Mulcahy’s home in Oak Cliff, requesting she give the foundations all of their research, which comprised of thousands of pages of documents, notes, photos and oral interviews. Mulcahy refused. They also learned that someone had been resubmitting research request documents to various historical archives. The artists had attached those research requests to their invoices to document their work. Now, someone was using copies of those forms to attempt to replicate the artists’ research. Finally in December 2015, the artists obtained legal representation and sent a cease-and-desist request to the Boone and Rainwater foundations.

Woods and Mulcahy’s concerns were multiple. There was the issue of copyright infringement, of the foundations coopting the research and language of their project that was the product of thousands of hours of painstaking labor. Then there was the issue of artists’ right of authorship. Woods and Mulcahy’s grant proposal, which the foundations accepted and funded, explicitly spells out that Woods and Mulcahy, as the artists, would be oversee all aspects of the project. But their more profound concern was that the foundations’ actions were being motivated by a desire to sanitize the history of the parks and present it in a safer, less honest manner.

Their concern was substantiated in January at a sub-committee meeting of the Parks and Recreation Board. A year after Mulcahy and Woods learned their project had been suspended, it was being presented to the city for approval and adaptation. The texts of the markers in that briefing were a curious mashup of the two previous drafts, the one created by Woods and Mulcahy, as well as the earlier draft by Norma Adams-Wade. (You can read and compare the three texts here.)

While it is clear the foundations editing the text for length, the text compiled by the foundations mainly focuses on the parks as recreational amenities, dampening language about municipal neglect while avoiding explicit reference to the role parks played in community activism. They eliminate details like the selling of three acres of Moore Park in Oak Cliff to a white business man wanted a buffer between the “Negro Park” and his new all-white subdivision. The revised text also inexplicably eliminates details like T-Bone Walker’s performances in Eloise Lundy Park and his songs references to the flooding that frequently occurred there. Comparing the three texts, the foundations’ versions of the parks’ history is clearly a lighter, gentler depiction of what the parks really meant to their communities.

After learning the foundations were trying to push the markers through the city parks board, Mulcahy and Woods began reaching out to parks board members alerting them to their concerns. They also went public with the story, which resulted in a front page Dallas Morning News story earlier this week. After the Dallas Morning News reported that Smith claimed the artists had “missed deadlines,” Woods and Mulcahy offered 300 pages of compiled email correspondences that show that all extensions to the project timeline were agreed upon and all deadlines were hit. In fact, both artists turned down work on other projects in order to accommodate the desire to fast-track park marker project. Smith also told the paper that he didn’t know about a conflict over the makers’ content in spite of the fact that the artist’s legal representatives had been in contact with the foundations’ lawyers since last December.

Yesterday the two artists made a last ditch effect to salvage their work. The full-board briefing about the project was tabled on February 5 and reset for yesterday. When the February 18 agenda didn’t include the briefing, the artists decided to address the park board nevertheless.

“We are publically asking that Boone, Rainwater, and Uptown Dallas, INC step away,” Woods told the board. “This is about the disregard of the agency of women and people of color and the treatment of professional cultural workers by power brokers and their representatives who believe that our collective efforts and work are cooptable and/or disposable. . . . This power dynamic is no longer a sustainable modality for our city.”

Then, to the surprise of everyone, after Woods finished her statement, the Boone Foundation did just that. At the end of the public comment session, Park Board president Max Wells read a statement from Garrett Boone, President of the Boone Family Foundation, that said the Boone Family Foundation is removing itself from the project. Wells also said that he has instructed city staff to revise the city’s current plaque signage to allow for historical and interpretive signage “that will serve the city better.”

Outside the Park Board conference room on the sixth floor of Dallas City Hall, Woods and Mulcahy were a little bewildered but clearly ecstatic. They were unsure about what would happen next. What was important, Mulcahy said, was that it appeared that the project would continue on, but play out within a public context.

“Most projects like this take years of community input,” she said.

Woods and Mulcahy never claimed to be the rightful authors of Dallas’ history, they merely held forth that the community has a right to tell its own history and that the editing of that history should not be the purview of private non-profit entities. It was a desire that strikes right to the heart of the conflict that emerges so often when private interests insert themselves in the public sphere. Dallas often relies on private foundations to fund public projects. Sometimes that involvement is simple and straight forward. However, as the Trinity River Project, Fair Park, and countless other instances suggest, sometimes it can all be more complicated.

The danger is that, regardless of good will and positive intentions, the mentality and objectives of private entities can – and often do – diverge from what is in the public interest. The slow erosion of the marker project is indicative of the kind of corporate mindset and public relations self-interest that can have an insidious effect on even the most well-intended of initiatives. In this case, the foundations displayed an attitude which suggested a proprietary claim on both the work of the artists and the history they unearthed, and in the process devalued both the artists as workers and the public’s right to a true and fully accounted for history.

But what happened yesterday morning offers reason for real optimism. What was at stake in this entire ordeal wasn’t merely the work of two artists or the reputation of two powerful and well-connected local non-profits. The question was raised: who will tell the public version of Dallas history? For too long, the answer to that question has been the entities who have the largest financial stake in that history. Often that has meant that we tell a history that maintains a sanitized public image of this city.

But the work of Woods and Mulcahy, the openness of the park board to hear their story, and the willingness of the Boone Foundation to step away from the project indicate that Dallas is willing and capable of coming to grips with its history. We are ready to hear our entire story, with all of its scars, wounds, and uncomfortable truths, alongside its revealing beauty and affirming sense of purpose.

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