Fair Park Now and Then (Photo: Leah Clausen)

Fair Park

Historian Michael Phillips on How Fair Park Fits Into Dallas’ Racial History

At a town hall meeting, the author reminded his audience how much of Dallas is built on the back of historical abuse.

Last weekend, Sen. Royce West hosted a town hall meeting to discuss the proposal to privatize Fair Park. There have been a number of these kinds of meetings over the past week, including one hosted by Council Member Tiffany Young, which you can re-live here, and one last night in East Dallas. But West’s town hall had the most intriguing collection of speakers to-date. It included some of the usual suspects: Mayor Mike Rawlings; Walt Humann, who is championing the Fair Park privatization plan; and Don Williams, one of the more prominent voices in opposition to the current plan. The panel also include two new voices in the debate: John Wiley Price, from whom we heard earlier, and historian Michael Phillips, who wrote the book White Metropolis — a book that, next to Jim Schutze’s The Accommodation, stands as one of the most important histories of Dallas ever written.

If you would like to read a full transcript of the town hall, click here. But I wanted to isolate Phillips opening remarks. Regardless of where you stand on the plan for Fair Park, what Phillips said at the meeting needs to be taken to heart. Even as we talk more openly about the history and lingering legacy of racism and segregation in Dallas than we might have a generation ago, Phillips reminds us how deeply the wounds go and how much the shape of the city is contingent on the racial abuse that cleared the way — sometimes literally — for the Dallas we live in today.

What follows are Phillips’ opening remarks. There are a few parts in the transcript where words were incomprehensible or spellings of proper names unsure. Those are marked: UPDATE: Michael Phillips provided a corrected transcript of his remarks in the comments. The following has been updated to reflected what he prepared for the forum:

So, let me start just by telling you something. The title of the panel uses the term “gentrification.” To be honest, I don’t like that term. It comes from the same root as the word “gentry,” which implies wealthy people. It suggests prettiness, it suggests beauty.

What’s really going on with “gentrification” is domestic colonization. And when you have a colonial relationship, that is designed to be unequal. That is not equal. You have an imperial power that extracts wealth out of a colony. That’s land, products and low wage labor, and that’s what goes on with gentrification.And then the colonial power then sells products at a grossly inflated rate and rips off the people who live in the colony. That’s what going on with gentrification. I want to make this clear.

We’re talking about Fair Park and the Dallas state senator briefly talked about Fair Park. What he just mentioned is that this particular piece of real estate is vital to African-American history in Dallas.

Let me tell you, this was and in some way still is, a monument of white supremacy. If you go to Fair Park, there all these tributes to the Confederacy. You see the seal of the Confederate State of America there. There’s a place where you used to have for instance, “Better Baby Contests.” You know, in the 1910s, when there was were eugenics. Have you heard of Eugenics? Do you know what that is? Where they wanted to selectively breed better human beings. And the winners of the contest were always blond, blue-eyed children and they would. . . I mean, you have professors from UT who taught about Eugenics at these events. Let me tell you a secret. The same people who despise black and brown human beings despise poor whites. And the poor whites were a danger to the culture, racial outsiders too.

You had African-Americans humiliated routinely at Fair Park. There was a dunking booth there where an African-American would be sat in a chair. You hit the target and he would be dumped to the water. And this is actually the slogan on the sides: “Hit the trigger, dump the Negro.” That’s a part of your city’s history. There was also a Klan day at the fair. So this is a place that is totally entwined with African-American history and, of course, in the 1970s when there was resistance to the attempts to level neighborhoods near Fair Park.

Now, gentrification is an old story. Of course with the Fair Park situation, we saw that they wanted to build parking spaces. But I want to talk too about State Thomas, another place that’s so critically important to African-American history.

That used to be the middleclass neighborhood, the professional neighborhood. And it’s located on the northern and eastern edges, bound by McKinney Avenue, Paul Street, North Central Expressway, and Pearl Street, and this was a center of life. This is a place where African-Americans could have middle class housing. And we see the colonial relationship that happened between the power centers in Dallas controlled by white Dallas. Basically, assuming a predatory relationship to that neighborhood.to have in this period these beautiful Victorian homes owned by African-Americans living there.

We have doctors, lawyers, et cetera, and then what happened is in the 1950s, Jim Crow laws began to crumble a little bit. You begin to have African-Americans venture out to what a previously been whites-only-neighborhoods, and the city deliberately let the neighborhood fall apart.

And you see this over and over again, because what happens to real estate values when a city does that?

It plummets, and then it becomes — I don’t know if you guys all went to Kmart. They had the Blue Light Specials and anything under the Blue Light Specials is for sale. The whole neighborhood became a Blue Light Special for rich developers and that happens.

And so, you had these streets deteriorate, codes not enforced. You had actually real estate developers begin to payoff people. You had pension funds investing in the real estate. They cleared out the African-American population. There was a point in the ‘70s where State Thomas, and again, as you get to the ‘80s, it looked like Dallas in the 19th century. It became almost a prairie, just empty space. A few telephone poles, abandoned buildings, that’s when the developers swooped in. And we know who moved in to the new developments, right?

Now, I don’t know what the long-term plans are, but I’ll just note this. The investment in the neighborhoods usually is in favor of real estate developers, the wealthy corporations. I know that when they destroyed State Thomas, they began to spend money once the black neighborhood — the black residents were gone, $20.1 million spend on infrastructure development after the place have been emptied out of people basically. It’s remarkable, suddenly the city’s attitudes towards that part of Dallas transformed dramatically.

Now, on the flipside of that is of course when developers want real estate, what they do is they destroy the housing there. And we saw this in 1990s, 1991 to 1994. In my book, I used the phrase “bulldozer apartheid.” And, they used those — you know, they started saying, “That building’s in code violation.” Someone is living here. There’s a home. They knock it down. They are allowing the streets to crumble. The police and fire department protection is slow. You don’t have city facilities nearby, but they’re going to enforce that housing code in order to force homeowners out of their property.

The city between 1991 and 1994 destroyed 1,000 homes in Dallas, primarily in African-American communities and Latino communities. They targeted neighborhoods that had 70% or more people of color. And this bulldozer apartheid continued. They did eliminate some substandard housing, but many of these homes were repairable.

It’s heartbreaking when you read the stories of the people who lost their houses in Dallas. I remember coming across a Dallas Morning News story. There’s a woman named Mattie Nash and she was crying. She knew about what was going on there, Mattie Nash. She’s one of the 38 members of Dallas Urban Rehabilitation Standards Board. She was aware of this, she said, “Every week we put demolition orders on houses that could be saved.” And then the woman I was about to talk about, the resident, Agnes Gray. She was a resident at Vineyard Drive in West Dallas. One question she said, “That home meant everything to me. I can’t understand why they just came in and took it from me, a widow woman and a working woman. I feel like I’ve been robbed.”

I think this is an old story. I have to confess, we have a couple of people here who are involved in the privatization of Fair Park. I am concerned about the lack of public input, the lack of public communication. I’m concerned by the fact that this valuable piece of Dallas real estate would be governed by a board that could meet without any public record. It’s a private corporation, right? A private foundation. I am worried about the lack of democracy in the process of making this decision. And I want to not see that area around Fair Park become the latest victim of domestic colonization. I’ll leave it at that. Thank you.

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