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Early Influencers: Robert Lee ‘R.L.’ Thornton

The business and civic leader was a driving force in the city and helped organize the Dallas Citizens Council.
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R L thornton dallas railway
Courtesy of the Dallas History & Archives Division, Dallas Public Library
Robert Lee “R.L.” Thornton August 10, 1880—February 15, 1964

Business and Civic leader Robert Lee “R.L.” Thornton was born in 1880 and grew up near Ennis, picking cotton.

He went on to found Mercantile National Bank, where he served as president from 1916 to 1947 and oversaw the development of its iconic headquarters in downtown Dallas. (Known as The Merc and completed in 1943, the 31-story Art Deco building sits on Ervay between Main and Commerce streets.)

Thornton was president of the Chamber of Commerce and helped organize the Dallas Citizens Council. He was elected mayor in 1953, and during his two terms oversaw the completion of Love Field Airport and a new city hall and library.

Thornton was involved in arts and religious organizations, but he also was a prominent member of the Ku Klux Klan, and as president of the State Fair of Texas, restricted access to black people. It wasn’t until 1961, three years before his death, that Thornton agreed to fully integrate the fair. Today, segments of interstates 30 and 35E in Dallas are named for him. 

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