Monday, September 25, 2023 Sep 25, 2023
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Inside the Effort to Archive the History of the Tenth Street Historic District

Preserving Tenth Street, one of the few intact freedman’s towns in the state, goes beyond the buildings. Artists, a museum, City Hall, and residents are coming together to collect and chronicle its history.
By Amal Ahmed |
From left, Ángel Faz, Vicki Meek, Johnathan Norton, and Christian Vazquez. The four are part of an effort to archive the history of the Tenth Street Historic District. Jonathan Zizzo, courtesy Nasher Sculpture Center

In the late 1920s, Oak Cliff’s T-Bone Walker recorded “Trinity River Blues,” which featured a jaunty piano melody underpinning lyrics about the flooding in Black Dallas neighborhoods like The Bottom and Tenth Street. “That dirty Trinity River sure has done me wrong,” Walker croons. “It came in my window and doors. Now all my things are gone.”

Ahead of Juneteenth this year, local musician Stanley Glenn performed some of Walker’s most famous songs to a small audience gathered at the J. Erik Jonsson Central Library downtown. The holiday marks the day that 250,000 enslaved people in Texas learned of their freedom, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.

Tenth Street, the neighborhood where Walker grew up, was founded by freed Black people after emancipation. The freedman’s town is still standing, but these days it’s not the Trinity River’s capricious flooding that threatens to wipe the neighborhood off the map. Current residents worry that gentrification and development, if left unchecked or unchallenged, will erase the historical significance and memories of the once thriving Black community that was damaged by the construction of Interstate 35 in 1959. 

Saturday’s Juneteenth events showcased some of the ongoing efforts to preserve Tenth Street’s history while supporting its residents in creating public archives. On the library’s seventh floor, residents of Tenth Street contributed photos and personal effects to create an archive that documents the neighborhood in its heyday: modest churches nestled among Craftsman-style houses; photos of weddings, family reunions, and civil rights protests. Lou Nell Sims, whose father used to run a tailor shop in Tenth Street, contributed personal artifacts from the store. “It tells the story of people and families who worked hard to survive here,” she says.

The celebration also featured a presentation from the genealogist Donald Payton on local Black history, and a stage reading from Dallas playwright Iv Amenti’s A Free Man Cries for the Future, a story that is loosely based on the neighborhood’s history.

“I think that we as a society have become reliant on mainstream media to do the things that griots and storytellers did for us in villages and communities a long time ago,” Amenti says. “As writers, we have to take these stories and make sure the ones from the fringes, within a community, get heard.”

Perhaps the most notable effort is being spearheaded by the artist Vicki Meek, currently the inaugural fellow at the Nasher Sculpture Center. A nationally renowned artist and professor, Meek has spent decades creating installations and site-specific work that captures Black history, from ancestral ties to the African continent to Black social struggles of the past and present in the U.S. Through a multi-year project called Urban Historical Reclamation and Recognition, Meek has been working with Tenth Street residents and a cohort of other artists to create a historical archive through various (and as of now, undetermined) forms of public art based on oral histories and community engagement.

“Right now, we’re in the beginning stages of capturing stories,” Meek says. “They’re amazing; these are people who are around 80 years or older, and they’re reminiscing about the area and growing up there.”

The end product of those interviews is something of a moving target. It could be a documentary, or an augmented reality project, or even a staged play. The community at the heart of the work gets to decide what it will be.

Dallas, more than most cities, has a tendency to erase its own history in the name of progress. Meek sees the Nasher Public project as a model to combat that force with community-centered art. “The main idea of the project is to commemorate this community that is in a state of transition due to gentrification. We hope they will prevail, but we don’t know if they’re going to be able to save their community.”

She points to historic communities of color, like a now-disappeared freedman’s town State-Thomas, and Little Mexico, where residents were pushed out and priced out. The area is now known as Uptown. Tenth Street could be well on its way to the same fate.

Meek is working with a team of Dallas artists: playwright Jonathan Norton, filmmaker Christian Vasquez, graphic designer Brian Larney, and social practice artist Ángel Faz. Dallas historian Dr. Marvin Dulaney and the city of Dallas’ archivist John Slate are also part of the project, assisting with the historical research that informs the work. In later stages of Urban Historical Reclamation and Recognition, Faz and Larney will be leading their own segments of the project, focused on the Mexican American and Indigenous communities, respectively.

Vasquez, a Dallas-born and raised filmmaker, has long been inspired by the social practice aspect that Meek brings to her work. “She’s one of those people in my life where I can’t quite remember how we met for the first time,” he says. “But I remember being just really floored by the way that her work converses with local and global and history.”

A home at 1008 Betterton Circle overlooks an empty lot where a home burned. It is charred from the fire as well. Recently, four homes have burned down in the Tenth Street neighborhood. Eboni Johnson

So far, he’s been collecting audio and video histories from Tenth Street residents, and he’s hoping to use the same methods to focus future work on a community in Old East Dallas, near where he grew up.

“There’s a multitude of stories to tell– the experience of residents, the physical stories of a neighborhood, and there’s the political and social story of development over 80 years,” he says. “But what’s important to us is that the residents have a legitimate sense of collaboration with the artists. We’re not here to impose a narrative.”

On Juneteenth, Meek led a workshop where library visitors painted remembrance stones–small rocks that serve as grave markings for Black ancestors who were buried in the segregated Oak Cliff Cemetery in unmarked graves. “I am morbidly interested in cemeteries,” Meek says. “I find that they are direct ties to the past places, where you can find the oldest records of people living in a community.”

Working with Slate, the city archivist, Meek dug up the names corresponding to the graves, using city burial records. “It seemed appropriate for Juneteenth, because it is about the emancipation of Black people in Texas, becoming ‘full citizens.’ But we know that didn’t happen. So where better to start than where people are buried from the 1800s?”

Later this summer, the Nasher will hold private events for residents of Tenth Street to learn about Black artists who are featured in collections and participate in workshops with Meek about art making and practice. The Nasher was also recently awarded a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to support Urban Historical Reclamation and Recognition.

While Meek collected interviews from participants on their reflections of Juneteenth during the day, other patrons were learning about the cemetery and the freedmen’s town for the first time. One visitor realized that the church she could sometimes glimpse from the ramps on and off I-35 was part of the photo archive in the library.

“We used to have some neighbors that would always throw a big party every year, and I was always like, ‘What’s that big party about?’” she says. “I think this holiday is more important than the Fourth of July.”

For Meek, this is the kind of discovery that she hopes Dallasites will make through the project; the events, performances and photo displays are more accessible than academic texts or archives locked away in a city office.

“Most people aren’t going to go research at the library, and read a history book about these communities. People are more open to things that are less daunting. So, the idea of us creating something that is engaging will make this history more accessible.”

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