Streetcars on Elm Street in the 1920s Dallas Public Library

Dallas History

How We Should Think About the Stories We Tell About Dallas

Author and journalist Stephen Harrigan's Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas is an epic history of our state, but is its Dallas origin story myth or reality?

At the end of his 900-plus page Texas epic, author Stephen Harrigan comes to grips with the Lone Star State’s immensity. Writing a single-volume history of more than five centuries of Texas “was too much.” “Texas,” Harrigan relents, “was too large, too old.” Perhaps more charitable were the words of Georgia O’Keeffe—the inspiration for Harrigan’s title, Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas. Before becoming the exemplar of American modernist painting in the mid-twentieth century, O’Keeffe was the entirety of the art faculty at West Texas State Normal College (now West Texas A&M) in Canyon. Her time in the Panhandle left her convinced that Texas was “the same big wonderful thing that oceans and the highest mountains are.”

For Harrigan—novelist, long-time Texas Monthly contributor, and all-around Texas man of letters—that bigness is a theme. It’s not just the miles upon miles of space and centuries upon centuries of time that prove daunting to cover. It’s the people, too. From the well-known—Sam Houston, Barbara Jordan, and Selena—to the fascinatingly obscure—Isabelle Talon, Satanta, and Fred Carrasco—Harrigan eschews Anglo triumphalism for a more realistic rendering of the white, African American, Hispanic, and Native American communities that populate the state’s history.

But before all that, he starts with the biggest Texan of all.

Harrigan’s entree into 500 years of Texas history is an ordinary autumn morning in Dallas. As the sun rose on October 19, 2012, Big Tex presided over Fair Park just as he had for the previous six decades. By sundown, however, the plus-sized patriarch of Texas’s yearly celebration lay in smoldering ruins.

For Harrigan, when Big Tex met his end in that conflagration, so too did an era in Texas history. The 52-foot tall cowboy was “a symbol of a simpler time” belonging “to a different Texas.” When the new Big Tex took his commanding spot in Fair Park he was “sort of a joke” put up “simply for nostalgia’s sake.” From the beginning the new Big Tex could be little more than an ironic place holder since “it was no longer possible for a single image…to truly evoke the heaving twenty-first-century mix of cultural allegiances and colliding identities that Texas had become.”

It was in that very spot, Harrigan tells us, that some seven decades earlier a group of elite Texans—headed by future Dallas Citizens Council founder R. L. Thornton—attempted to fashion such an image of cohesion amid diversity. Thornton and his coterie of rich and powerful Dallasites brought the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition to Fair Park—never mind the fact that Dallas hadn’t even existed a century hence when Anglo invaders and their Tejano allies wrested the state from Mexico.

The exposition sought to show off what the state had accomplished in a century and present an interpretation of that history that emphasized the progressive march of white civilization. Exposition organizers hoped to use the event to “Texanize Texans.” This interpretation would be familiar to generations of Texas school children.

These two events—Big Tex’s destruction and the 1936 Exposition—frame Harrigan’s entire story. The fact that both occurred in Dallas is worth reflecting on. In both of those instances Dallas tells us, Harrigan at least, something about the state.

Certainly the state can tell us something about Dallas.

The 1936 Exposition was a watershed moment for the state. It was for Dallas, too. Just as the Exposition was suffused with Texas myth, it cemented the foundational myth of Dallas. Dallasites, at least those who have set the city’s agenda, have proudly proclaimed that Dallas had no reason for existing. That a metropolis sprouted on the North Texas plain was a result of the sheer will, force, and determination of visionary men like Thornton. Save for Thornton’s gumption, the Exposition that had no reason being in a city that had no reason for existing.

This myth—like most of them out there—rests on a faulty foundation. By saying that Dallas had no reason for existing, the perpetuators of this myth overlook the very real desire on the part of early Dallasites to make their city a port. A generation late it may seem silly or quaint, but for decades Dallas schemed to give the city a link to the sea, and thus a reason for being, by dredging and expanding the Trinity River all the way to the coast. The fact that Dallas never became a port says more about a city that has never known what to do with its river (ahem, the Trinity Parkway), not that the city started with no purpose.

A look at the downtown skyline, circa 1945
library of congress

Harrigan seems to reinforce this civic myth. Noting the confusion surrounding the origins of the city’s name, Harrigan remarks that “Dallas had something of an identity problem from the beginning.” Cities like San Antonio, Houston, Austin, and even Fort Worth were made by the forces of history and geography. Those cities had their reasons for being there, reasons that gave them particular identities. On the other hand Dallas languished for three decades until city boosters attracted the railroad, becoming a commercial hub in the 1870s.

This story is one that generations of the wealthy and powerful in Dallas have told to justify their wealth and power. As Dallas flourished city leaders emphasized their own determination as the decisive factor in the city’s development—it wasn’t nature or geography or any other force that under laid the success. Obviously, they argued, they were doing something right and so things went on, business as usual. This kind of thinking created the gulf between the haves and have nots that Dallas still struggles with.

Harrigan does little to push back against this myth. Perhaps in failing to do so he shows just how difficult it can be to write the history of Texas while remaining immune to such storytelling. By his own admission, Harrigan finds it hard to resist the allure of foundational myths. After several chapters detailing the rebellion spawned by opportunistic, slave-owning Anglos in the 1830s Harrigan admits that “like many other writers before me I have been seduced again…by the high drama of the Texas Revolution.” “It’s almost impossible,” he continues, “for someone who grew up white in the Anglo-dominated Texas of the mid-twentieth  century to put aside the idea of the revolution as being not just a crucial historical event but also a creation story, even the fulfillment of some sort of unstated prophecy.”

These dalliances with romance at the expense of reality, while important, are rare. Harrigan spends most of his energies following diverse characters across the Texas stage but offering little in the way of coherence or dramatic conclusions. Texas might just be too big for such. His treatment of Dallas follows that pattern.

With an eye for intriguing characters, Harrigan finds plenty with Dallas connections including the city founder—John Neely Bryan—who found himself confined to the State Lunatic Asylum for his final years. Huddie Ledbetter contributed to Deep Ellum’s reputation as a blues mecca after his release from prison. Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, secured a pardon from Governor Pat Neff after the bluesman wrote a song simply titled “Governor Pat Neff.”

The Hunt family provided generations of interesting characters. H. L. Hunt enters the narrative in the 1930s as he struck a deal at the Baker Hotel—at the corner of Commerce and Akard—with wildcatter Dad Joiner for an East Texas oil field that would make Hunt one of the richest men in the world (Harrigan calls the deal “more than a little bit skeezy.”) One of Hunt’s sons would go on to found a football league while two others tried to buy all the silver in the world, in the process spending nearly $3 million a year just to store the stuff.

In his episodic telling of Dallas’s history, Harrigan, wittingly or not, hits on a theme: paranoia and suspicion. Dallas enters Harrigan’s story in the summer of 1860. As the nation lumbered toward disunion, North Texans were on edge. After a series of unexplained fires in Denton, Pilot Point, and Dallas (population 168), white citizens responded with violence. Dallasites turned their ire on enslaved people thinking the fires were the opening salvo in an all-out race war.

The likely culprit was that summer’s extreme heat. The 110-degree weather caused the spontaneous ignition of volatile, phosphorus-tipped matches found in dry-goods stores across the region. Paranoid Dallasites were none too interested in this explanation. By summer’s end Texans had lynched at least 30 and perhaps even 100 African Americans and their abolitionist allies—a bloody end to a nonexistent plot.

This wasn’t the last time Dallasites saw a plot where none existed.

Over the next century Dallas developed as one of the state’s leading commercial centers. As a railroad junction and cotton market wealth flowed into the city—finally giving Dallasites their purpose. Neiman-Marcus thrived downtown while Deep Ellum became a cradle for a uniquely American art form. The 1936 Exposition would seal the city’s importance. But even in maturity Dallasites still clung to their suspicions. The paranoia was never stronger than on the eve of a president’s visit.

Dallas takes center stage in Harrigan’s account of the mid twentieth century. Harrigan expertly weaves a portrait of a city that was the bellwether of a monumental change. Dallas was the first crack in the solid South, turning to the GOP after more than a century of Democratic dominance. The new Republican guard did not shy away from hysteria. As Harrigan sums it up: Dallas “was the state’s feverish headquarters of anti-communism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, anti-fluoride, anti-federal overreach, anti-school-milk programs, prosegregation activism, and pro-American militancy.”

JFK would be more concise: “nut country.”

The city’s movers and shakers had no problem embracing the intense paranoia that underlay this agenda. They included characters like Bruce Alger, the first House Republican from Dallas since Reconstruction. His was the sole dissenting vote for a program that would provide free milk to school children. “Socialized milk,” he called it. The pastor of First Baptist, W. A. Criswell, saw nothing but a popish plot in Kennedy’s election. Robert Jeffress wasn’t the first to preach politics from the pulpit of First Baptist. One of Criswell’s most ardent adherents was the previously mentioned H. L. Hunt—who in the meantime authored what Harrigan calls the “worst utopian political novel ever written by a rich, powerful Texan.”

And then there’s General Ted Walker. A decorated war hero, Walker was dismissed from his command after pushing right-wing propaganda from the John Birch Society on his subordinates. Walker would go on to lead the anti-integration mob at the University of Mississippi when James Meredith tried to enroll in the fall of 1962. Back in his Turtle Creek home in April of the next year, Walker narrowly escaped the wayward bullet from Lee Harvey Oswald’s Mannlicher-Carcano rifle. Oswald’s next target would not be so lucky.

By the time JFK’s motorcade snaked through downtown, Dallas was no stranger to political violence and the paranoia that spawned it. In 1960 LBJ and Lady Bird were assaulted as they walked from the Baker to the Adolphus where Lyndon was to give a speech four days before the election. Their assailants were the Mink Coat Mob, a group of well-to-do Dallas ladies organized by Bruce Alger who carried signs saying “Texas Traitor” and “Judas Johnson.” When Kennedy and Johnson narrowly took Texas, Nixon said it was “because of that asshole congressman.”

Just a month before Kennedy’s assassination, Adlai Stevenson came to Dallas on the invitation of Stanley Marcus. As ambassador to the UN, Stevenson was met with an angry crowd—an international organization like the UN had few friends in Dallas—who shoved and spat on the ambassador.

JFK would be more concise: “nut country.”

But of course the climax of Dallas suspicion and paranoia came on November 22, 1963. Harrigan eschews any talk of conspiracy theory. It makes sense that something would happen in a city where political tension had been at a fever pitch for years. For Harrigan, it seems as though it was a given that the president would be gunned down in the streets that day. Perhaps the only surprise was that the trigger man was not one of the right-wing zealots that came to define the city’s politics, but a dyed-in-the-wool Marxist.

What happened in Dealey Plaza that day earned Dallas an ignoble moniker: the City of Hate. For a moment at least Dallas was left to sit with the tension, fear, and paranoia that marked much of its history. But just as quick, a new narrative took hold, one of glitz and glamor. The city was home to America’s Team and Southfork Ranch. Soon enough this image—along with the new wealth from surging oil prices—made Dallasites first among Texans in, what Harrigan describes as a “cultural moment where they were not just tolerated by the rest of the country but…emulated.”

Perhaps Dallas is on the threshold of redefining itself. But for now those old stories—the city with no reason for existing, the city of hate, and the city of glamor and greed—prove too powerful to break away from. For long these sorts of stories have served to reinforce the status quo and comfort those at the top. And Harrigan shows just how seductive those stories can be.

Harrigan does well in telling the history of the state. His story of Texas succeeds because of its diversity and his embrace of the success and failures of the multifaceted peoples who have fought over what Texas means for centuries. His keen sense for the kind of interesting personalities to tell this story finds a fertile home in Dallas. But we should look beyond those quirks for a similarly diverse story about Dallas, one that can replace some myth about a city with no reason for being.

The stories we say about our city say something about us. Dallas was not made by dynamic men like R. L. Thornton. As Harrigan’s work shows, dislodging that kind of myth is a tall order. But we must try. Doing so requires turning our attention to historical realities if we hope to make a more just future for our city.

Blake Earle is an assistant professor of history at Texas A&M University at Galveston and a former postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Presidential History at SMU. 


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