Last week Deep Vellum Publishing Company, a small distinguished nonprofit Dallas publisher, announced it will re-publish my 1987 book, The Accommodation, about the racial history of Dallas. I have been thinking about it all week, ever since I found out.
First of all, the re-publishing of the book has precious little to do with me. Years ago I conveyed the rights to the book to Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price. There’s a whole personal back-story there about why I did that and why he and I had a falling out and why he sat on the rights for so long. (Ed. Note: Jim explained this peculiarity to us on our EarBurner podcast, back in the early months of the pandemic. Listen here.)
But you know what? This week when I was pondering, I decided his and my personal stories about this are not all that interesting anymore. Commissioner Price and I are two old guys who should get over it. I hope somewhere in this new adventure a moment will arrive for us to shake hands again. But much more interesting things are in play right now than our personal feud – more important things to talk about.
I was inspired to write my book by one specific moment in my life. On the evening of August 20, 1984, when it was still 97 degrees outside, I sat in the over-air-conditioned Dallas Convention Center listening to the late W.A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas. He was delivering a typically flouncy long-winded invocation to the Republican National Convention that was about to nominate Ronald Reagan to his second term as president.
Expressed entirely in cowardly euphemisms and dog-whistles, Criswell’s message was that Dallas was a White Jesus town, a city that had never taken the boot off the neck of the Black man, had never allowed riots and uprisings like those that had shredded the rusting decadent metropolises of the northeast. The path to salvation for the rest of the nation, he said, was for everybody to be more like Dallas, which meant implicitly that some weak-sister cities might need to hike up their trousers and put the boot back on the neck.
I was appalled. And I don’t mean the riots back up where I had come from six years earlier had not been terrible. They did deep lasting damage. What appalled me was Criswell’s proposition that we go backward, that we reverse course and return to … what?
What? That was the question. What was the past here? Where would Criswell’s road back take us? What kind of town awaited us behind that deeply shadowed bend in the road?
To cut to the chase, I spent long evenings over the course of a couple of years researching that question in what is now called the Dallas History and Archives Division of the Dallas Public Library. A team of expert librarian-scholars helped me overcome some of my own dearth of scholarly training as I pursued this singular quest.
By the way, if you want a more comprehensive look at the history of Dallas, you should read Darwin Payne’s book published in 2000, “Big D: Triumphs and Troubles of an American Supercity in the 20th Century.” If you want a keen appraisal of what the city’s all about right now, go to Jamie Thompson’s new book, “Standoff: Race, Policing, and a Deadly Assault That Gripped a Nation.”
My book had a narrow focus. If the nation did what Criswell had urged, if we went backwards on race, where would we wind up?
The most powerful documents I found were the handwritten reports sent back to Washington from Dallas by agents of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, who were dispatched here and all over the former Confederacy in the years after the Civil War by President Ulysses S. Grant to protect African-American citizens. The reports were written in beautifully flowing cursive captured on microfiche sent to me by the Library of Congress. Taken together, the reports painted a picture of horrific organized racial terrorism practiced by Whites whose purpose was to prevent Black people from exercising their rights as citizens, especially voting.
Every mile of that backwards road back is stained in blood and horror. On every mile are stories of Black citizens of Dallas who stood up and fought bravely for their dignity. And, yes, sadly but predictably, the road also is marked by compromise, hence the title of my book, The Accommodation.
I don’t want to re-litigate all of that here. It’s in the book. Deep Vellum will bring the book to market at $30 a copy a year from now.
Here is the part I have been pondering for a week. For the last five or six years, I have been aware of significant interest in my book by young White people. Young, for me usually, is anybody under 70, but in this case I mean mainly people under 40.
And, please, this isn’t false modesty or aw-shucks talking: I just didn’t get it. The damn book is a third of a century old. That’s a long time. It was published before the Internet. It’s pre-Google, or it wouldn’t have taken me two years to do the research.
The interest has been sufficient to drive up online prices for used copies to absurd levels that I hope and pray only rich people have paid. Bootleg copies have been published online in PDF. I meet young people all the time who want to talk to me about the book.
The Rev. Amos Disasa of Dallas First Presbyterian Church hosted me recently on an online discussion of the book, and the question came up. Why would anybody still care about this book now? I shared with him my two-bit theory.
But to explain it better here, I have to go back to 1987 when The Accommodation was first published. Originally it was to be published by a Dallas publisher. The late Alex Bickley, the hired CEO of the private Dallas Citizens Council, then and now a prestigious business leadership group, persuaded Taylor Publishing to pull it off the presses the day it was to be printed. My tough resourceful literary agent, Vicki Eisenberg, found a maverick publisher in New Jersey who published the book.
The book describes Criswell’s role in the national Baptist church, where his segregationist diatribes were so vile that they earned condemnation from no less a figure than the late Billy Graham. When the book came out, Criswell went on Baptist radio and denounced it as “pornography,” warning the faithful not to even look at the book, let alone read it.
Guess what? That worked. Looking back, I honestly believe the only White person I knew in Dallas in the next 20 years who read the book was my mom. My father said he did, but he always seemed a little wobbly on the details. To be fair, he had a lot of other stuff to read.
I found it one time in a bookstore in White North Dallas, shelved under travel. I asked the guy behind the counter why. He looked at it and said, “Well, sir, it looks like it’s about accommodations.”
I told him I wrote it and asked if he wanted me to sign it. He said, “Well, sir, if you write in it, you will have to buy it.”
The glories of authordom.
Everybody Black read it. In the year after it came out, I spoke to churches and civic groups all over Black Southern Dallas. The reception I received was typically polite but reserved. If we got down to it, people told me, “This is great, but we knew all this stuff anyway. We thought you had some big scoop for us.”
No. The scoop was for White people. They were the ones who had suppressed, ignored and denied this terrible history for 120 years and were hiding from it still. Why would Black people be surprised?
All right, this is my two-bit theory about why young White people in Dallas care about this book now. The suppression worked. The true story was never told in White Dallas. But in the meantime, young Whites were growing up in a much more diverse world. Once kids growing up have little buddies and girlfriends across racial lines, the doctrine of racial difference no longer computes.
What do you mean, Mom and Dad, that my best friend Billy is not the same kind of creature I am? He’s exactly what I am. Something you are telling me is weird. I don’t believe you. You’re lying for some stupid grownup reason.
Now take these children who don’t believe in the big difference, bring them into early adulthood and show them the city. Most of the people of color who live on one side of the river are poor. Most of the White people on the other side of the river are not poor. Inevitably, these young citizens must ask themselves why.
What made the city happen this way? What is the answer, the key to the stark reality that we see on the ground?
Their parents and their schools and their Criswells have given them no answer, no roadmap, no clue. Again, this is not false modesty: it’s not that my book is a great scholarly excavation of the issue. It’s that it’s the only attempt anybody has made so far to solve a glaring unavoidable riddle.
Why is the city like this? Why is there a line of demarcation? What do these bizarre euphemisms mean, like “southern sector?” Southern Sector sounds like a scary science fiction movie. Why do we have a southern sector in our city?
I get credit for writing it. Vicki Eisenberg gets a lot of credit for making it happen. Bobby Frese, my editor at Taylor Publishing, now a lawyer in Birmingham, Alabama, deserves major credit. Commissioner Price deserves credit for getting it back out there, with royalties to go to KwanzaaFest, his annual health and Black cultural event. Goodness knows, Deep Vellum deserves credit for taking a chance on it.
But here’s something I’m quite serious about. I truly want to see some young author produce a better answer to the question, one that speaks more directly to younger readers who are of today, of this time and era. Maybe Deep Vellum will find that person.
The question, why is the city like this, is at the true heart of Black Lives Matter. Guess what, it’s at the heart of #MeToo, climate change, the pandemic, economic inequity, the entire puzzle and challenge of tomorrow. Why is that line there? Who put it there? What could this city be, instead, if we were able to make that brutal and unjust scar on the landscape disappear forever?