As the furor over how best to preserve the home of civil rights leader Juanita Craft unfolds bit by troubled bit, one thing becomes clear: the story is far more convoluted than you would guess from the current debate over whether the Craft house is appropriate to Old City Park.
But since that’s where the dispute is centered at this writing, let’s begin there. The park’s defense is that it is an architectural museum created to capture Dallas’s vanishing physical past. No other building has been placed there to serve as a monument to the person who lived in it.
But with today’s racially electric political climate, that’s just not enough of an argument for black community leaders like Park and Recreation Board member Vivian Johnson, who says, “It’s time we replace rhetoric with action.” The Craft house has come to symbolize the frustrations felt by a vociferous band of black leaders who are tired of being shut out. “We don’t want Juanita Craft’s house to be outside the fence [at Old City Park],” says Johnson. “We’re tired of being outside the fence.”
The twists and turns in this issue don’t end there. As Park Board member Jim Graham says, “Mrs. Craft would turn over in her grave if she could see the way this issue has become a political football.”
But first, the background. Juanita Craft’s efforts to end segregation began as early as 1928 when she became the plaintiff in a suit filed by the NAACP challenging the legal basis of the whites-only Texas Democratic Primary. She worked diligently through the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties organizing new chapters of the NAACP and working in grassroots Democratic politics.
In 1955, Craft took a bold step. She decided to desegregate the State Fair of Texas, which at that time set aside only one “Negro Achievement Day” for blacks to enjoy the Fair. In her words (excerpted from her oral autobiography), “Kids from Hillcrest gave us their Fair tickets and we demanded entrance. When we grew tired of picketing, cab drivers and construction workers took over. There was a good deal of media coverage. We won. We desegregated the State Fair.”
There were other conquests: North Texas State University in 1955, theaters and lunch counters in 1961. Mrs. Craft worked diligently and without violence, preferring to apply subtle pressures rather than shake angry fists.
Chandler Vaughan, thirty-four, has carried the torch of preservation. A Dallas native who spent his college years at Berkeley, Vaughan returned to Dallas, and in 1981 had a chance meeting with a woman he had long admired. Juanita Craft. Now an investment banker, Vaughan recalls that the two experienced an “extraordinary chemistry.” One day while Vaughan was visiting Craft for lunch, he noticed boxes of papers, artifacts, and “notes on the backs of envelopes”-an ad hoc chronicle of the civil rights movement in Dallas-lying unattended on the back porch. Vaughan asked about the papers and was told that Bishop College was supposed to pick them up but had never done so. “I just knew that those papers were extremely valuable to this community,” says Vaughan. “I offered to organize them.”
Vaughan, who is white, did more than that. He printed Mrs. Craft’s autobiography, funded by longtime civic leader John Stemmons. “Juanita Craft was greatly beloved by the city fathers of that time,” says Vaughan. “It’s just amazing how she understood how the oligarchy worked-behind closed doors. She would call them on the phone and they responded.”
At her request, Vaughan formed the Juanita Craft Foundation, which, according to Vaughan, is primarily intended to raise funds for the long-term caretaking of the Craft legacy. Until the uproar over the house, the foundation had been almost unknown to the public.
Ironically, Vaughan has become the target of angry attacks during the many long meetings held in an attempt to hash the matter out. The two sides are virtually paralyzed by mistrust. Vivian Johnson and her associates see underlying plots involving the improper transfer of funds, deceitful methods and motives on the part of the Juanita Craft Foundation, and racist attitudes all around. Vaughan says he is stung by accusations of treachery and racial prejudice.
The matter has been remanded to the safer haven of the city’s Park and Recreation director, a black. “Frank Wise is in a position to do what we could not do because of a breakdown in our dealings,” Vaughan says.
A new wrinkle (or perhaps an old one if, as some suspect, this is what black leaders wanted all along) is the option of leaving the house where it is. That plan offers immeasurable benefits to the surrounding South Dallas neighborhood-and a boon to the reputation of Johnson and other politically involved leaders there.
If Old City Park is chosen, the controversy could get even uglier, when “programming” the house becomes the focus. “We don’t want a bunch of little old white ladies guiding tours through Juanita Craft’s house, giving their rendition of civil rights,” Johnson says. Stay tuned. This volatile issue will be around for some time to come.