Larry Johnson didn’t recognize the significance of the Tenth Street Historic District until he was well into adulthood. Located a stone’s throw away from Johnson’s childhood home, Tenth Street is one of the only communities established by formerly enslaved people that remains relatively intact in the nation. The city of Dallas recognized the Freedman’s town with its historic designation in 1993, and it took the state another 22 years to honor it with a marker that details how Tenth Street came to be.
Tucked between Clarendon Road and Interstate 35E, the neighborhood of modest Craftsman and vernacular-style homes was founded by slaves who did not learn they were free until two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. In the coming decades, it grew into a thriving and independent Black community with its own banks, schools, pharmacies, and even a funeral home. It was an enclave from the racism and hostility that permeated much of the rest of the city. Longtime residents say they remember Dizzy Gillespie, Sammy Davis Jr., and other famed Black celebrities flitting through the neighborhood in its heyday.
Johnson is now a Tenth Street resident and an advocate for its preservation. He is a member of the residential association and the nonprofit Remembering Black Dallas, which leads tours and records the history of African Americans in the nation’s ninth-largest city. But in his youth, he mostly remembers riding his bike past the neighborhood in the 90s on his way to school. “I used to deliver Meals on Wheels in Tenth Street,” he says. “I remember way more houses—my first customer was on Landis Street. That block had houses everywhere, nice little Craftsmen houses. I came back three years later, and those houses were gone.”
Today, the neighborhood bears visible evidence of decades of disinvestment from the local and federal government, as well as meager attempts to restore the Freedmen’s Town to its former glory. Empty lots dot the neighborhood. Recently, four homes have burned down. (The causes of the blazes are still unknown, according to Dallas Fire-Rescue, but residents suspect squatters may have lit fires in empty homes to keep warm during the winter.) For sale signs have started popping up on some streets, and Zillow listings tout the neighborhood’s investment potential for dream homes on cheap lots in a prime location about three miles south of downtown Dallas.
At a press conference in early March, residents spoke about the recent spate of fires, and how issues like illegal dumping and squatting have gotten worse. “I love my home,” said one resident. “I love Tenth Street, but I’m concerned about our children, and the person on a fixed income—if somebody burns their house down, they don’t have the resources to rebuild of move somewhere.”
In 2021, the Tenth Street Residential Association produced a neighborhood led-plan, which outlines a strategic vision for the community that it would like the city of Dallas to honor. The plan calls for investments in basic infrastructure such as repaving streets and sidewalks, as well as public safety. It also makes more complex asks, such as getting the city to support historically appropriate repair programs for low-income residents. The plan envisions a neighborhood where small businesses could once again thrive and support the people who live there, as well as a cultural center and library could showcase the neighborhood’s history.
That history has long been at risk of being lost entirely. Tenth Street’s 1993 historic designation should have stabilized the neighborhood and prevented more homes from being destroyed, says David Preziosi, formerly the executive director of Preservation Dallas, and now with the Texas Historical Foundation. “It provides protection from demolition, from inappropriate changes to houses, and requires property owners to have changes reviewed by the city of Dallas’ Landmark Commission,” he says.
But without funding to help aging residents or absentee landlords repair the historic homes, more and more fell into disrepair. Many properties were passed down without formal wills, so clear titles are hard to track down. Owners must possess the title before they can sell or apply for grants to fund repairs.
A judge ordered the city to tear down dozens of those homes, since the dilapidated residences were in violation of municipal health and safety codes. “That court order superseded the Landmark Commission’s authority, so there wasn’t really much they could do,” Prezioso says.
On top of that, a city ordinance was on the books for nearly a decade that allowed Dallas to remove protections for historically-designated structures that were 3,000 square feet or smaller. Nearly every home in the Freedman’s town is smaller than that, meaning there were virtually no protections for the historic structures.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Tenth Street on its annual “Most Endangered Historic Places” list in 2019, following a lawsuit filed by Tenth Street residents against the city for funding demolitions there. That same year, the City Council responded by passing an ordinance limiting city-funded demolitions.
In 2021, the federal American Rescue Plan Act opened up funding for city infrastructure projects, and a city spokesperson says that $2 million has been earmarked for home repairs in Tenth Street. That’s in addition to $700,000 available through city funding. But according to local news reports, that funding is hard to get if property owners can’t prove they have a clear title and home insurance, which many home owners may not be able to obtain. (The city did not share data on how home repair funds have been spent over the past two years.)
These days, most people seem more interested in the land underneath the district than the houses themselves and the history they contain, Johnson says. Tenth Street could soon be adjacent to the city’s newest multi-million dollar deck park, which has been named the Southern Gateway. It’s minutes from Bishop Arts District, and close to downtown, too. Johnson says one developer recently told him, “We need to tear down these raggedy old houses and start over.”
If Tenth Street were wiped off the map, it wouldn’t be the first Freedman’s town in Texas lost to gentrification or centuries of disinvestment. A major barrier to preservation of Black history, especially across the South, is that much of the historical record hasn’t been well-kept, says Andrea Roberts, a professor of urban planning at the University of Virginia, and the founder of the Texas Freedom Colonies Project.
The Freedom Colonies Project collects and verifies historical records from Freedman’s towns all over Texas that haven’t been thoroughly documented. Members of the public can contribute information about historically Black towns and neighborhoods that they may remember through oral family histories. Roberts and her team then verify the information.
“What you have with a lot of African American structures is that there’s been so much out migration, the people who hold the memory of why this place matters, or the person in that place matters– they’re gone,” she says. “Or that information was never aggregated.”
There is also a fundamental perception, Roberts says, that historic structures are uniformly 100-year-old Victorian homes, inhabited by wealthy White founders. “If you can’t prove that kind of thing, the place doesn’t matter,” she says.
Across Texas—and most of the U.S.—Freedman’s towns and other historic Black communities have been targeted by government agencies for infrastructure projects like freeways or flood control and “urban renewal” schemes. On top of that, decades of redlining made it difficult for homeowners to maintain properties. So as families moved out or abandoned properties all together, the physical reminders of these communities remain hard to track down, if not impossible.
Locally, Tameshia Rudd-Ridge, a Dallas-based entrepreneur, is trying to record the history of Tenth Street. Along with Remembering Black Dallas and the Tenth Street Residential Association, she won a Library of Congress grant to formally document the community’s history and narratives.
The fieldwork supported by the grant could be the first step to founding a community cultural center in the neighborhood. Rudd-Ridge, who founded an ancestry and genealogy platform called Kinkofa, also hopes that the project can connect the descendants of Freedmen to their own history.
The project came about after a Juneteenth bus tour of Black history in Dallas. Rudd-Ridge struck up a conversation about historic preservation with Johnson and Dr. George Keaton, the late founder of Remembering Black Dallas.
“I was sitting next to them, and they were like, ‘Young person, what are you going to do about this?’” she recalls with a laugh. She was one of the youngest people on the tour, in her 30s.
Inspiration for the project, titled If Tenth Street Could Talk, came from the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project, a New-Deal era program that supported artists and writers during the Great Depression, Rudd-Ridge says. The program’s Slave Narratives Collection, in particular, contains a wealth of information about the lives of emancipated Black people in the South. Several narratives were collected in Dallas, including at least one Tenth Street resident whose house is still standing, Rudd-Ridge says.
“He gives his life story about being enslaved, and we were wondering, ‘What happened to his family after they gave this interview?’” she says. “People’s lives were more than just this one moment.”
As Rudd-Ridge has traced her own family history through Texas, she’s found plenty of places that no longer exist: Black communities in Uptown’s State Thomas neighborhood replaced by what she describes as “boxy townhomes,” long-gone historic churches and her great-grandparents’ barbershop. Once, she tried to track down an ancestors’ home near Tenth Street, only to realize that the address was now literally part of the freeway.
For Johnson, rebuilding some of Tenth Street’s lost history is also something of a personal project: in addition to repairing the home that he bought here, he’s also trying to resurrect Sunshine Elizabeth Chapel, one of the community’s original churches, built in 1889. It was demolished by the city of Dallas in 1999, but before it was gone, his father, a minister, sometimes preached at that very church.
A few years ago, when Johnson found himself at a difficult period of his life, Tenth Street, with all its own troubles, put a new lease on his life. “There was a lot of stuff that was falling apart for me personally,” he says of the time. A chance encounter with longtime residents taught him about the fight to preserve Tenth Street’s history against all odds.
Rudd-Ridge and Johnson see their work as a crucial effort to protect and preserve what is arguably one of Dallas’ most historic neighborhoods amid intense development pressure. Without saving the memories and stories of the people who have lived here, in addition to the historic buildings, a key part of Dallas’ past is at risk of being lost.
“Learning about the Freedmen, and the people about to lose their homes, that brought me back to Earth,” Johnson says. “I look around and I see that little Black girls and little Black boys don’t have anything they can go to in Dallas to see what their people did—the perseverance they had in spite of Jim Crow, and in spite of slavery. That’s what motivates me to tell the full story.”