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Dallas History

The Fair Park Lie

Fifty years ago, Dallas officials forced 300 families out of their homes, promising improvements the whole city would enjoy. The real plan: replace Black people with concrete.
By |
Elizabeth Lavin

By June 23, 1970, when the State Fair Musicals kicked off its season with a touring production of Mame, the fight for the homes on the edge of Fair Park—somewhere between a mile and a world away—was all but over.

In the audience that night was a young Black man wearing an Army uniform. He had been recently discharged after 10 months of service, he said, because he had suffered a brain hemorrhage. He was still getting used to his new life as a math major at UTA.

He didn’t say why he wore his old uniform to the Music Hall at Fair Park that evening. Maybe he felt like a young Black man would get more respect if he showed up looking like the soldier he had been instead of the 22-year-old student he now was. Maybe that’s why the woman outside had bought him a ticket, seeing him there in his dress greens under the Spanish tile and casted domes.

Maybe he just didn’t have another suit for the theater. The young Black man had not planned on any of this, after all. He wasn’t sure why he was there. It wasn’t because he was a fan of Mame—made famous on Broadway a few years earlier by Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur—or the star that night, the dancer and actress Juliet Prowse.

He had come from Arlington to visit his parents, who lived in the neighborhood that snuggled up to the southeast side of the fairgrounds, near where Fair Park had originally been founded in 1886, an area filled mostly of wood-frame houses owned by Black families. They were situated close together on narrow lots shaded by tall pecans and red oaks and small groves of mimosas and crape myrtles. Or they had been. He had likely noticed, on his walk to the Music Hall, how many of those houses had been razed by then.

The city of Dallas had been taking homes from Black people since before he was born, going back to at least the early 1940s, hustling them off the land at cut-rate prices and calling it progress. Two years earlier, the city had come for the homes of his parents and their neighbors, offering 65 cents per square foot, maybe 75, in many cases not just less than market rate but less than they had paid a decade earlier. His parents were supposed to consider themselves among the lucky ones, since they had been offered $1 per square foot, even while a nearby property belonging to a White city councilman had gone for more than $4.

The young man never said why he wore his old uniform to the Music Hall at Fair Park that night. But he could only take so much before he let the theater know about how the city was taking his parents’ home.

Some people had taken the deals, thinking they couldn’t fight the city. But his parents had stayed, along with other holdouts, mostly older folks who had worked their entire lives to own their homes. The Joiners, of course, Fred and Dorothy, over on Winifred Street. Giddings Johnson, 67 and recently remarried, was still on Fair Street, his creamy green house with its manicured bushes hard to miss. Down the street from him was Katherine Orr, a widow, and around the corner, on Lawhon Street, was Willie Wess and his wife, Irene. Two dozen or so others were scattered here and there.

But soon enough, they’d all be gone, too, just like the rest. Almost 300 houses scraped off the face of the earth, right down to the topsoil. The city bragged it could tear down and clear a frame house in less than three hours.

And for what? People from the city kept trying to dress it up, saying they weren’t building just a parking lot or that it wouldn’t always be a parking lot. But that is what it would be. Hundreds of lives traded for 4,000 parking spaces that would be used maybe a few times a year. The Cowboys were moving from the nearby Cotton Bowl to Irving. There wasn’t as much need anymore. Not that any of this was ever really about parking. That was just the excuse.

In his bottle-green seat, the young Black man felt like there wasn’t much of a place in this world, in this city, in this neighborhood, for people like him. He felt like there wasn’t much of anything he could own that couldn’t one day be taken away from him. Like nothing had really changed in a hundred years. Like nothing ever would.

As the young Black man sat there in his uniform, looking at the spectacle onstage, Prowse’s Mame Dennis arrived at a Georgia plantation, of all places. It was finally too much. He stood up and started screaming, no longer able to contain himself. He threw a book because that’s all he had with him to throw. And then he kept screaming, about his parents’ house, about his neighborhood, about his world, until he was escorted out by a sheriff’s deputy.

That was all he could do. It was just about all that was left to do.

“Dallas always had these little pockets of Black folks that could walk to work in the White neighborhoods,” says Donald Payton, who has spent almost 40 years researching family histories in Dallas. He has been called “the unofficial historian of Black Dallas” and, in an official capacity, worked with the Dallas Historical Society and the Dallas County Historical Commission and served as president of the African American Genealogy Interest Group.

I reached out to Payton as part of an attempt to locate the Fair Park families who had scattered like dandelion seeds 50 years ago. Along with help from the Dallas Public Library, Paul Quinn College, and the nonprofit Dallas Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation, I was trying to find homeowners or their descendants. Even with Payton’s help, it proved difficult, full of literal dead ends, names in obituaries only leading to other obituaries.

Along the way, though, we pieced together their story. Most of it happened in City Council and Park Board meetings, out in the open and duly reported by the Dallas Morning News, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Dallas Express; much of what follows is taken from those accounts. It is somewhat shocking, looking back, that no one from the city or the State Fair felt as though they had anything to hide.

But that’s with hindsight, with the ability to read a decade’s worth of articles in one sitting, to see the threads connecting them. At the time, Payton says, it was a well-kept secret what was happening to the Fair Park homeowners. Maybe because those newspaper stories, like the people taking the land, usually focused more on the property than the people on it.

“The Fair Park people, as Whites moved out, that was a chance to live over near Fair Park,” Payton continues. “Blacks were moving into South Dallas, but coming into those little pockets.”

There was Wheatley Place, where civil rights pioneer Juanita Craft lived, and a section off Oakland Avenue (now Malcolm X Boulevard) called Queen City. A little farther south there was Lincoln Manor and Bonton. There was a Ford Motor plant where Dawson Road and Hatcher Street met, but most of the people who lived in these pockets were doing domestic work at the time, cutting yards, working as maids. “The city hadn’t really started to open up yet,” Payton says.

In 1952, Black families started moving into the houses on the southeast side of Fair Park—an area previously inhabited only by Whites since development of the area began in the late 1800s. (See “A Brief History of Racism at Fair Park” for more.) It was a concession made after a series of bombings had targeted Black-owned homes around Exline Park in South Dallas, a couple of miles away. But almost as soon as the new residents arrived, the city of Dallas and State Fair of Texas began trying to move them out.

Their presence in the neighborhood, to begin with, had been like treating a heart attack with a Tylenol, temporarily relieving a tiny bit of pain but doing little to fix the underlying issue. There was a Black housing shortage that had been deemed “acute and critical” by a five-man committee appointed by the Dallas Chamber of Commerce in 1950.

Between 1940 and 1950, 60,368 single-family houses were built in Dallas; of those, just 1,000 were available to Black families. Housing proposals that sought to remedy the problem—new Black-focused developments in Cockrell Hill, near White Rock Lake, and elsewhere—were opposed and obstructed. Roads were closed. City services steered away. Attempts by more affluent Black families to move into traditionally White neighborhoods were met with violence. In addition to 11 bombings that took place from February 1950 to the summer of 1951, there had been 20 bombings of Black-owned homes in 1940 and 1941. I recommend you read Jim Schutze’s recently reissued book, The Accommodation, for a fuller recounting of those bombings.

Meanwhile, in 1943, the city began to claim land for a slate of big-picture projects that weaponized the government’s power of eminent domain, provided for in the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution. (The last two words of the final clause, which states “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation,” have proven to have an extremely elastic definition over the years.) All of the land needed for this program of road building and other civic expansion came from Black communities. It was blight as far as the people doing the taking were concerned. This “achieved two goals at once—the bolstering of Dallas’ image and the clearing of slum areas,” Cynthia Lewis, a master’s candidate at TWU, writes in her 2019 thesis, Under Asphalt and Concrete: Postwar Urban Redevelopment in Dallas and Its Impact on Black Communities, 1943–1983.

Beyond depleting the housing stock, these projects devastated Black enclaves in and around Deep Ellum and Stringtown in East Dallas; Elm Thicket, near Love Field; Tenth Street in Oak Cliff; Bonton and Ideal in South Dallas; the Trinity River bottoms in West Dallas; and North Dallas (now Uptown).

At the time, along with the pockets in South Dallas, these were among a handful of places where Black residents were allowed to live in Dallas, their boundaries strictly enforced. They were in different parts of the city but all connected—drop a pebble in one and it caused a ripple in each of the others. Taking a home from one neighborhood meant families would have to double—and sometimes triple—up in a home in another, so it would have been incredibly destabilizing to these communities if eminent domain had been used in just one.

It happened in almost all of them at some point. Some people were forced out of one neighborhood, were able to resettle at a financial loss in another, and then were forced out of that one, too.

It was supposed to be different in Fair Park. The neighborhood had been transitioning, and more houses were opening up. “All in there’s where poorer White people saw us coming in and most of them started moving into Mesquite,” says 87-year-old Willie Mae Coleman, who lived not far away. Still does, actually. People there call Willie Mae “the mayor of South Dallas,” and she is still active, regularly attending meetings at the Zan Wesley Holmes Jr. Community Outreach Center, where she is on the board and where she spoke to me via Zoom a couple of days after her birthday in August.

But it wasn’t different. In April 1956, the city bought a two-block strip of land off Pennsylvania Avenue, bordered by the fairgrounds, a 10.1-acre area that contained 93 lots and more than 50 Black-owned homes. The property was cleared and turned into a parking lot, ready for use by the State Fair the following October.

That kind of efficiency was possible back then. The City Council was elected at large, a voting method—now found to be unconstitutional—used in Dallas and elsewhere to neutralize minority voters. Candidates ran from a district, but they had to get elected citywide. If Black people represented 15 percent of the population here, it was impossible for them to elect their own representatives. At any rate, the real decisions were made by the Dallas Citizens Council, a group of White business leaders that had its roots in the consortium that strong-armed the Texas Legislature and brought the Texas Centennial Exposition to Dallas and Fair Park in 1936. The Black families in South Dallas and elsewhere weren’t part of this process. They had no real representation, no real political power, and no real means by which to achieve either.

Planners urged returning to the location to take more land for parking in a document titled “Parks and Open Spaces Plan of 1959.” The city and the State Fair held off then, but the idea was in the air. The seemingly inevitable condemnation and clearance of the neighborhood served to keep property values low until they had a reason to return with their checkbooks.

Seven years later, they got it.

In the spring of 1966, the State Fair of Texas hired Economics Research Associates, a consulting firm out of Los Angeles, to prepare a report that would be issued under the anodyne title “A Redevelopment Program for the State Fair of Texas.” The fair had been commissioning similar reports for the better part of a decade, trying to come up with a way to make the fairgrounds a more profitable concern. The Economics Research Associates proposal was delivered on November 1 of that year.

The bulk of the findings in it came from two in-depth group interviews—on June 10 in Dallas and the following day in Paris, Texas, almost two hours away—conducted by Facts Consolidated, a subsidiary of ERA. The two locations, the report says, “were selected for the greatest possible urban-rural contrast.” The panels were chosen at random, with participants recruited by telephone, the only qualification being attendance at the State Fair within the previous five years. The report does not offer a racial breakdown of the two groups of interview subjects, but given the year and the responses, it is safe to assume that they were predominantly (if not uniformly) White. Especially considering that Paris was, as Texas Monthly put it in 2020, “the town that invented the spectacle lynching.”

Regarding the location of the fair, the report says that “the area surrounding Fair Park generates intense emotional discomfort in middle-class white residents of Dallas,” because they either “do not want to admit that Dallas has slums”; want to “avoid facing an undesirable, unpleasant aspect of life existing side by side with their new-found physical comforts”; or are just plainly afraid. “You do not feel safe around Fair Park,” one of the interviewees said.

To alleviate these concerns, the report suggests essentially surrounding Fair Park with a concrete moat—20,000 parking spaces. The reasoning for the fix is as straightforward and emotionless as you might expect from a firm named Economics Research Associates.

“The solution for all these conflicts, at least in terms of the Fair Park location, is simple. All that is required is to eliminate the problem from sight. If the poor Negroes in their shacks cannot be seen, all the guilt feelings revealed above will disappear, or at least be removed from consideration. This question was posed:

“ ‘If all the land around Fair Park were bought up and turned into a paved, lighted, fenced parking lot, would that solve the problem?’

“The citizens of Dallas answered with a resounding ‘Yes.’ ”

The natural follow-up question was apparently not posed to either group, in Dallas or in Paris, and not satisfactorily answered by the city or its citizens for years to come: “What about the people who live there now?”

Looking back, it doesn’t make any sense that the city didn’t attempt to answer that question by applying for federal aid. Participating in an urban renewal program, for example, would have made available Department of Housing and Urban Development funds to pay for moving expenses as well as any losses incurred by the homeowners. Sales would proceed on a competitive basis. It wasn’t perfect—they’d still lose their homes—but it would have given the owners a better chance to start over.

Urban renewal programs require HUD approval, as well as a city referendum, and meant the city would, among other conditions, have to prepare a plan for the use of the area in question as well as a suitable plan to relocate families. (Both of which should have been on the books regardless of who was paying for what.)

It would have been more complicated on the part of the city, but that would have been a negligible price, based on the potential return. And it wasn’t that the city overlooked the possibility. In March 1967, State Fair president Robert B. Cullum confirmed that fair directors were investigating various federal aid programs, but it seems the effort went no further than that. Why? It is difficult to come to a different conclusion than this: everyone involved cared more about the property than the people on it.

Instead, in June, it was announced that funds to enhance Fair Park would be included in the city’s 14-item, $175 million bond package ($1.43 billion in 2021 dollars), a huge capital-improvements program tied to Mayor Erik Jonsson’s “Goals for Dallas” project. Jonsson, a co-founder of Texas Instruments, was drafted to become mayor in early 1964, not long after the JFK assassination, charged with rescuing the city’s reputation. “Goals for Dallas” was his moonshot, a big swing at bringing Dallas not just back to respectability but also to prominence, via a series of ambitious development plans. The bond was the first step and was headlined by $44.3 million for street repairs and $23.9 million for a new City Hall building. They called it “Dallas at the Crossroads.”

(The city, apparently, had been at the crossroads since 1961, when the Dallas Citizens Council produced a 21-minute film with that same title, narrated by newsman Walter Cronkite, encouraging peaceful cooperation as the city desegregated its school system.)

Fair Park was set to get $12.6 million (more than $103 million today), based on an out-of-date master plan formulated before the State Fair had even commissioned the ERA study. The money would go to renovate the Cotton Bowl and Music Hall, add air conditioning to the Coliseum, and, as a July 23 story in the Dallas Times Herald added, almost as an afterthought, “the city bond program will also provide funds to buy land for additional parking and to remodel the grounds on the existing park.”

It was not mentioned that the “land for additional parking” was currently occupied mostly by Black homeowners, perhaps because the city and the State Fair had not formally stated where they planned to buy this land. Cullum spent more time as carnival barker—it’s not difficult to imagine him dressing in a Big Tex costume for work every day, talking up the idea of the fairgrounds as a year-round attraction on the order of Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens. All of this was hopes and dreams, with very little on paper.

The Crossroads bond package would be sent to voters on August 8. In late July, the Dallas Negro Chamber of Commerce unanimously endorsed the program, mostly on the strength of an $18 million proposal (including federal money) that promised to bring properties in Park South, a 1.6-square-mile area of South Dallas, up to minimum city code standards.

An ad ran in the July 29, 1967, edition of the Dallas Express, then a Black-owned newspaper:

“You cannot afford to feel ‘let the other person vote.’ Your vote will determine the success of this election … Vote for bonds. We have been asking for better housing … Better streets … Better zoning for neighborhoods … Better jobs … Now is your time to act … Your future is at stake … Vote for bonds.

“Nobodys property will be taken away from owner. This bond election is to help you have a better neighborhood … Make your property more valuable … More livable … This is not urban removal … This is community development.”

It was signed by almost 80 people, among them the reverends Zan Holmes Jr., I.B. Loud, and S.M. Wright; longtime civil rights leader A. Maceo Smith; Dallas Morning News columnist Julia Scott Reed; and business owner Leo V. Chaney.

The election brought a record 83,000 voters to the polls, and all 14 measures on the ballot easily passed. The narrowest margin came with Proposition 9—the one concerning Fair Park. Voters approved it 49,457 to 32,254. (To compare: Proposition 1, $1 million for new fire stations, passed 60,818 to 22,896.) Proposition 9 was the only one to receive fewer than 50,000 votes in favor.

Almost a full year later, on July 29, 1968, the Park Board and City Council approved using $2.8 million in Crossroads bond funds to acquire 42 acres southeast of the fairgrounds, an area bordered by Pennsylvania and Fitzhugh (to the north and south) and Gaisford and Second Avenue (to the east and west). Pennsylvania and the cross streets would be closed, adding another 9 acres.

The next day, the city began negotiating sales. Longtime Parks Department director L.B. Houston, who took the job in 1939 and wouldn’t retire until 1972, hoped to have all 51 acres acquired by March 1. “I don’t think it will be ready for this Fair,” Houston said, “but you can park on a great amount of it for the 1969 Fair.”

Over the next weeks, Houston would add new features to the parking lot whenever the subject came up, until what he was describing sounded more like a park. The trees would be preserved, as many as possible, and landscaped areas where families could have a picnic would be added, and a lighted playground, and maybe basketball courts, and there might be enough room for a baseball diamond. It would be a place the neighborhood could enjoy, and sure, it would also have some parking spaces, too. He also hinted they might need to acquire more land in the future.

By the end of August, the city had set up a special office on the fairgrounds to facilitate land purchases, so residents wouldn’t have to go downtown.

Shortly after, in early September, it was announced that funding for the Park South program had already been slashed by $5 million.

The city of Dallas made a series of assumptions, all of which proved to be misguided. The first was that they could purchase the land quickly and easily, for a price they had decided was fair. Maybe, in their minds, more than fair, since they were the only buyers. The long-running threat of condemnation, a sword of Damocles dangling over the neighborhood since the first 10 acres had been cleared in 1956, had mostly seen to that. Devolving conditions, exacerbated by vanishing city services and building permits (according to the homeowners), had taken care of the rest.

There was good reason for the city to believe it could do this. It always had. By 1968, there was at least a quarter century of evidence that the city knew exactly what it was doing in this regard and exactly how to do it.

The owners knew what kind of machine they were up against. They had seen it plow through communities all over Dallas. (For a detailed breakdown, read “In the Name of Progress” here.) A few days after the city announced it would start purchasing properties, 56-year-old Clarence King, who lived at 4139 Tella, told a reporter from the Dallas Times Herald that “it don’t make much difference now how I feel. I can’t buck against the city if they want it. There’s nothing I can do.”

The city made another incorrect assumption, this one a bit harder to justify. It assumed, when the first bulldozers arrived in the area in January 1969, that they would be greeted as liberators, freeing the residents from the oppression of living in what they saw as a slum. “We had hoped that when demolition teams moved into the area the residents would be more ready to move,” said Bruce Hunter, the city’s right-of-way-supervisor, in February, in an interview with the Dallas Morning News’ Marlyn Schwartz. A former Air Force lieutenant and SMU grad, Hunter was the man in charge of negotiating the sales. He had also helped secure the land for Love Field’s expansion.

While there were undoubtedly some renters who didn’t mind leaving and didn’t have much sympathy for their landlords, there were plenty of people like Giddings Johnson, proud owners who knew exactly what they had and what they stood to lose. “I want my house and I don’t see giving it to the city,” he told Dallas Morning News columnist Julia Scott Reed, “but if I am forced to sell it must be for a price that I can relocate without going into debt, because my time has run out for purchasing a house.”

Giddings and his wife were the first Black family to move into the neighborhood, in 1952. He was already almost 50 by then. He and his wife had been living in rented rooms and working as domestics since moving to Dallas in 1923, up from Bryan.

He had joined the Army when the age limit was raised to 45 during World War II, and when he was discharged after four years, he received $300 in mustering-out pay. When Giddings returned home, his wife told him she had managed to save $200 while he was away. They used that $500 to put a down payment on a five-room frame cottage on a 60-by-150-foot lot on the corner of Fair and Lawhon streets. The total price was $8,000.

The Johnsons planned to grow old here, scrimping to buy it, sacrificing to improve it. He painted the house avocado green and put in a flagstone patio and barbecue pit in the back. Along with the shrubbery and flowers he enjoyed tending to, Giddings figured he invested maybe $4,000 on the backyard alone. “It does me good to see things grow,” he told Reed. “I’ve always wanted them and now I have them.”

It wasn’t easy paying off the mortgage, especially not after his wife died in 1958, but he had done it, earning $160 a month at the VA hospital. When the city came for his house, he was 66 years old and semiretired, working as a crossing guard at the intersection of Second and Pennsylvania as well as a part-time waiter and butler. In four more years, when he would be 70, he planned to be fully retired. That wasn’t going to happen with what the city had offered: $8,700, right around $1 per square foot for the land, barely more than he had paid for it. He didn’t want to end up like some of his neighbors.

“Most of the people didn’t want to sell their homes, but they didn’t know what to do. Some of the older people who sold their homes are in a bind now. They were told that their homes would be condemned and they went ahead and sold.”

He told Reed that the empty houses the city had purchased but hadn’t torn down were becoming magnets for thieves and assorted hoodlums, vice of various stripes. There were rats. It was becoming the slum the city had believed it to be from the start. “City service is at a standstill, such as garbage collection,” he said. “Sometimes, we have to call in several times before it is picked up.”

But Giddings Johnson wasn’t backing down, and he wasn’t alone. The city made one other false assumption: that the homeowners couldn’t or wouldn’t organize. But by the end of 1968, a few months after the city began buying property, a group of them had banded together. In December, they signed an agreement with members of the University Park United Methodist Church to form the Fair Park Block Partnership. The partnership paired 30 homeowners with 11 members of the church, including Miriam Schult. With her cat-eye glasses, string of pearls, and short, swept-back hair the color of steel wool, the middle-aged housewife looked like the only neighborhood dispute she would get involved with would be over the condition of a nearby house’s hydrangeas. But the plainspoken and calm Schult would become one of the organization’s leaders.

“They have helped us and kept us together,” Giddings said. The block partnership would later start holding its meetings at the home he had worked so hard on. “At least we haven’t been pushed out of our homes.”

The city had no one to blame but itself for the block partnership.

The idea was sponsored by the Greater Dallas Council of Churches and had been helped along by Mayor Erik Jonsson. He explained the setup in a letter to the University Park Methodist Church in October 1968, writing that the program, “which it was my privilege to call to the attention of the Council of Churches, provides a means by which less fortunate citizens have the privilege of helping themselves but with assistance of their more fortunate fellow citizens in doing so.”

On February 3, 1969, the newly formed Fair Park Block Partnership held a meeting at the Garden Center in Fair Park. The consensus of the church members was that the best way to help their less fortunate partners was opening a line of communication with the city. Attended by a group of city officials that included city attorney Alex Bickley and right-of-way supervisor Bruce Hunter, this meeting was meant to be the start of that process.

Last Vestige: Patrick Williams—photographed in 2018—is the grandson of Irene and Willie Wess, two of the homeowners who lost their land when the city exercised its power of eminent domain. He parks cars across Fitzhugh Avenue from the parking lot where their home used to stand. But that’s as close as he will get. He won’t go to the State Fair anymore.

John Bailey Jackson Jr., known as J.B. and a couple of weeks shy of his 40th birthday, spoke on behalf of the families. Jackson’s role model was the statesman, author, and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and he even resembled him a bit, his hair seeming to float away from his head. (In later life, as his hair began to turn white, the resemblance would grow more profound.) His life motto was a quote from Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” At the Garden Center, he was ready to make a few. He owned a house in the area, as well as rental property. He worked as a real estate broker and had been on the debate team at Morehouse College with Martin Luther King Jr. (“He knew him when he was Michael,” Donald Payton says.) Jackson knew what he was talking about and knew how to talk about it.

He said the prices being offered were “unfair, unsatisfactory, and are too low even to be considered,” and noted that the property belonging to Councilman Abe Meyer was appraised at $4.17 per square foot, while on the same block, maybe 30 yards away, land belonging to Black homeowners had been appraised at 75 cents. “Just what is the difference,” he said, “between poor people’s land and land belonging to a city official?”

Jackson brought up an elderly widow who had lived in Elm Thicket when the city expanded Love Field and condemned her property. “She received about half the actual value of her home and moved to the Fair Park area where she once again had to start paying house notes. She finally got the house paid for and same thing is happening again, with the same unfair price being offered.”

Bickley—tall, with thinning gray hair, an aquiline nose, and a West Texas accent, the platonic ideal of a Dallas city attorney—admitted that relocation for the elderly people in the neighborhood wouldn’t be easy, but, unfortunately, the city couldn’t base its prices on age or sex or marital status. He left out race.

A few days before the meeting, the Dallas Cowboys had officially broken ground on their new home in Irving, Texas Stadium. If that gave the homeowners hope that the city might reconsider purchasing their land, since there would be less need for another parking lot with the Cowboys gone, it was dashed in March when Joseph B. Rucker, executive vice president of the State Fair, issued a “management report on master plan studies” for Fair Park. President Robert B. Cullum referred to the document by the more fanciful “grand scheme.”

Rucker’s report said the need for additional parking, even with the Cowboys’ exit, was “hardly debatable.” It also said that even if there wasn’t a need for more spaces, continuing to acquire land was necessary to move toward the eventual goal of a 700-acre central park, expanding out from its current 190-acre core.

The Garden Center meeting was successful in clarifying the homeowners’ position, but if it had been meant to open communication with the city, it had soundly backfired. Bickley said he wouldn’t meet with the group again, saying that he thought more could be accomplished if each homeowner came to City Hall individually to lodge his or her complaint.

Bickley clearly did not want any kind of organized resistance. True to his word, no one from the city would meet with the block partners for months, save for Councilman George Allen, the only Black member of the Council. The problem was, Allen didn’t have much power to help them.

Over the next weeks and months, Allen made a motion to reevaluate the land acquisition program, asked city staff to explore potential sources of state and federal aid, pushed for the city to pay relocation expenses, and tried to get the city’s appraisers to change the formula it was using to come up with its offers, factoring in future use. But he was routinely ignored or placated, and nothing he had put forth had much of an effect. By June, Allen had succeeded only in getting the city to boost its price-per-square-foot offer to $1, up from 75 cents.

He brought the offer with him to a Fair Park Block Partnership meeting, where it was immediately rejected as “still grossly unfair.” Members accused him of “carrying water for the city.”

“What is legal is not always moral,” he told the group. “I have tried and tried for months to come up with the right answer for this situation. Give me credit for this.”

He was asked if he thought the city’s offer was fair. The councilman said that he was not qualified as a real estate appraiser, but he sympathized. “I have a home in this area myself.”

Would you sell your home for the prices they’re offering?

“No, I don’t think I would,” he admitted.

Jackson said that the landowners would accept Allen’s offer to come speak at City Hall. “Now you ask the City Council if they won’t return the favor and come here next week to hear us.”

Schult, the leader of the University Park United Methodist Church side, had another ask for Allen. “Please give them this invitation, too,” she said. “Ask them to please step down from the White race for awhile and join the human race.”

Mayor Jonsson didn’t respond to Schult’s invitation, and he was dismissive of Jackson’s.

“What you can’t get into every time somebody has something to talk about is having a council meeting in their living room,” the mayor said the next day. “I can’t imagine the council going out to any group, as a group.” He said the dispute “is an administrative matter. It’s something for [City Manager] Scott McDonald and his people to settle.”

He was done with the matter. Or so he thought.

In July 1969, park director L.B. Houston continued to insist the area between Pennsylvania and Fitzhugh, and Gaisford and Second Avenue, would be developed both for parking and recreation. “We believe there is a way to treat it where we could have grass through proper selection of base material,” he said. “We’re hoping to get away from concrete.”

But it was always going to be a parking lot, no matter what amenities Houston seemed to invent as he went along. When J.B. Jackson went before the City Council in July to tell them a large industrial company wanted to build a 12- to 20-story building on Second Avenue, from Fitzhugh to Pennsylvania, paying $3.75 per square foot for the privilege, he was told that they couldn’t allow the sale because voters had approved the idea of creating a parking lot.

Meanwhile, the city was buying houses in the area but not clearing them. There was a rash of fires. The vacant houses turned into “hideouts and hangouts for all kinds of winos and vandals,” Dorothy Joiner said. “A lot of us are afraid to leave our homes because vandals hiding in the vacant houses are just waiting for a chance to steal everything we have.”

Olive Branch: Peter Johnson moved into the basement of Mt. Olive Lutheran Church not long after he came to Dallas in November 1969. The church, presided over by the Rev. Mark Herbener, a White pastor, was one of the few places in Dallas that opened its doors to Martin Luther King Jr. when he visited in the 1960s. This would be the site of the Fair Park homeowners’ standoff with the city on New Year’s Eve of that year.

Another homeowner, Willie Mae King, said that “men in city cars” were telling renters to leave because the property is being sold. Lienholders were pressuring owners to sell. The Cliff Food Store, on Second and Birmingham, the only grocery store within walking distance, closed when Councilman Abe Meyer sold the property early on, creating a food desert for many of the elderly residents without transportation.

“The city is trying to sweat us out,” Jackson said.

The homeowners were holding firm, but nothing would slow down the process. By the end of September, only five pieces of property remained without a purchase agreement or condemnation action. And though Jackson had said that they wanted to take their chances with the county commissioners in condemnation court, that wasn’t turning out to be an appealing alternative. In October, G.C. Crenshaw, an 85-year-old retiree, was granted the first award from the three-member condemnation panel. He received $2,101.65, less than the $2,400 he had paid for the property.

They were running out of options, not that there had been many to begin with. And then, in late November, Peter Johnson came to town.

The city had no one to blame but itself for Peter Johnson’s continued presence in Dallas.

Johnson was sent to Dallas by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization founded in 1957. Just 24 at the time, he was meant to stay for about three months, negotiating with cities in the Southwest to bring to theaters a documentary about the recently assassinated Martin Luther King Jr., to raise money for King’s wife, Coretta. The SCLC had reached out to 800 cities around the world; 799 agreed to screen the film.

“There was only one city on earth who’d say, ‘We’re not going to show that nigger’s movie,’ ” Johnson says today, in his Oak Cliff office. “You live in that city.”

He’s grayer now but still has the same serious, searching eyes that scan whatever room he’s in. He still says wonderfully profane things in the same swampy Louisiana drawl that makes “hands” come out “haynds.”

Johnson wasn’t officially in Dallas, just using it as a base because of the convenience of Love Field, staying at a downtown hotel owned by the World Council of Churches. Johnson was warned by SCLC leadership to stick to his mission, and at first he did. The Fair Park homeowners learned of his presence and had asked him a number of times to come to one of their meetings, just to listen. “I bullshitted them and came up with reasons why I couldn’t, because I wasn’t supposed to get involved in local stuff,” Johnson says.

One night, a group including J.B. Jackson, Giddings Johnson, and block partnership director Al Lipscomb came by his hotel room, and he couldn’t bullshit his way out of meeting with them any longer. He sat and listened. As they explained their plight, Giddings Johnson began crying, telling the SCLC representative that, “If Dr. King was alive, he’d help us.” He was already angry at the White power structure he had encountered in the city, so that was enough.

“If the King movie had not been fought here, once that night was over, I would’ve been on a plane back to Atlanta,” he says. “I had no intentions of ever moving in the Black community.”

Once he started moving, though, he didn’t go slow. He began operating out of the basement at Mt. Olive Lutheran Church on Forest, whose congregation was presided over by the Rev. Mark Herbener. (The White Herbener “was the most active militant religious leader in the Black community,” Johnson says.) The red-brick sanctuary was one of the few places that had welcomed King when he visited Dallas in the 1960s, and the basement was where the church had been founded, when it belonged to another Lutheran church and had sent two Black women to the basement, refusing them communion solely for the color of their skin. They formed Mt. Olive as a result and later came back and bought the building.

By early December, Johnson had already organized an economic boycott of downtown Dallas. “I didn’t come to Texas to tell jokes,” he said at the time.

By the end of the month, he had forced a meeting with Mayor Jonsson, something the homeowners hadn’t managed in a year of battling the city.

Jonsson had kept himself out of the dispute, deferring to the city manager and other staff, reacting petulantly to demands made on his time but otherwise not getting involved. But he couldn’t stay away any longer. Peter Johnson represented a threat to the fragile peace Dallas had brokered throughout the civil rights movement, mostly via conservative Black ministers who understood how things were done in Dallas.

Peter Johnson understood how things were done everywhere else.

Two days before the annual Cotton Bowl Parade was to take place, Johnson sent the mayor a telegram. The message said the mayor had until midnight on December 31 to meet with the Fair Park homeowners’ leadership or else several hundred people would disrupt the event, which was to be nationally televised on CBS. Demonstrations were planned before and after the game, featuring the University of Texas and Notre Dame, as well.

On New Year’s Eve, in the cramped basement at Mt. Olive Lutheran, Johnson huddled with 500 others, White, Black, young, old. Some were veterans of the antiwar movement, trained activists who were accustomed to being beaten and bloodied, ready for anything. Many were not. But they stayed.

Bomb threats were called in. Johnson said, “Bomb the goddamn church when we’re in it.” Direct threats against Johnson’s life were made, too, but he was used to that. Frank Dyson, the chief of police, showed up around 10 pm with a riot squad ready to clear the building. No one was leaving.

J.B. Jackson rode with Mayor Erik Jonsson in the annual Cotton Bowl Parade on January 1, 1970, integrating the parade for the first time. It was the last real victory for the Fair Park homeowners.

The mayor offered to send a limousine for Johnson, to bring him straight to the mayor’s residence. “I don’t want to meet with you,” Johnson said. “I don’t have no house y’all are taking. What the hell do I need to talk to you for?” He said the mayor needed to meet with the homeowners. Face them.

As the midnight deadline neared, Johnson sent home the women and children, fearing there would be a bloodbath outside the church when it was time to step outside the basement and head to the parade route, which would run down Forest to the gates of Fair Park, as he had promised. He explained to everyone who remained that they might end up in jail with him.

Finally, the mayor blinked, saying he would come to his office and meet with whomever Johnson wanted him to meet with. Peter Johnson told the homeowners he would go with them, but that they needed to speak for themselves.

“You need to stand up, straighten up your back, look him in the goddamn eyes,” he said. “Don’t smile. Don’t giggle. Don’t look at your shoes. Look him in his eyes and tell him about your home, that this is where you raised your children. Tell him that this is your home—this little wood-frame regular house that he thinks is a house is a home to you.”

When they arrived at the mayor’s office, he had one other condition that they needed to tell the mayor about. The Cotton Bowl Parade had always been segregated. “That’s over,” Johnson said. “Tell him if it’s not integrated, we can still block it.”

The meeting at the mayor’s office was brief, mostly a sign of good faith that there would be a more productive meeting later on, not in the middle of the night. Johnson went back to Mt. Olive Lutheran and sent everyone home. It was after 2 in the morning when he called SCLC leaders in Atlanta. They told him to get the hell out of Dallas. They were taking the threats on his life seriously. Hang up, go to Shreveport, and call when you get there.

He called A.J. Hoffman, his personal cab driver better known to all as Popeye, and left town immediately. By the time they got to a Holiday Inn in Shreveport later that morning, CBS’ coverage of the Cotton Bowl Parade was underway. He saw the mayor’s convertible Cadillac making its way along the parade route and heard the announcer say, “And I have no idea who the Negro man is sitting next to Mayor Jonsson.”

Peter Johnson laughed. There, next to the mayor, sat J.B. Jackson.

If this were a movie, the screen would freeze on an image of J.B. Jackson next to Mayor Erik Jonsson and then a block of text would explain how this pivotal moment led to an eventual victory by the Fair Park homeowners.

Another block of text might talk about how the battle to save the Fair Park houses led to a new generation of Black political leaders. Al Lipscomb and others involved in the fight, like Elsie Faye Heggins (who counted Jackson among her close advisers), would eventually serve on the City Council. The at-large council system was abandoned. That all started here.

A final block of text would mention the park that will be built there soon, five decades later, the kind of place that will, at long last, resemble what L.B. Houston swore this land would be used for. Maybe the shot of Jackson and Mayor Jonsson would dissolve into kids playing on emerald-green grass. Maybe their dad is nearby. Maybe he’s a young Black man in an Army uniform.

But you know already that this story does not have a happy ending. The rest happened, but Jackson’s ceremonial ride was the last real victory the holdouts in Fair Park were able to celebrate.

“They have something on their side of the question,” the mayor had said at the beginning of January, for the first time agreeing to give the matter his personal attention. “I want to check it out and understand what the problems are to achieve equities in acquiring properties.”

But by May, Jonsson decided he had heard enough, even though the meeting he had promised the homeowners had never quite materialized. He insisted that “we’re not putting people out of their homes for a parking lot. The plans for the area are diverse and will be of benefit to the people living in that area. The people voted for these improvements.”

The Right Reverend: Before their meeting with Mayor Erik Jonsson, Peter Johnson told the Fair Park homeowners, “Don’t smile. Don’t giggle. Don’t look at your shoes. Look him in his eyes and tell him about your home, that this is where you raised your children. Tell him that this is your home—this little wood-frame regular house that he thinks is a house is a home to you.”

He also complained that he had suffered personal slights, “little things that show a lack of respect for the mayor’s office.”

Later, in June, he said that he was “anxious for the people of Dallas to have all the facts concerning the Fair Park matter and will at the time which seems most appropriate make an official, complete report.” Earlier that week, he had promised a press conference to “tell the whole story.” Neither ever happened.

Instead, after a six-month moratorium, condemnation hearings began again. City appraisers were now using earlier sales figures—the below-market prices their right-of-way agents had forced upon other homeowners—as comps to justify the low assessments they had come up with. The result was awards lower than the city’s final offers.

On July 27, the city initiated action on the final piece it needed, the last of 277 parcels, a 6,000-square-foot property with a frame house at 4248 Fair St. owned by Elvis L. Hayes. The final offer was for $8,700.

Thirty landowners—including Giddings Johnson and J.B. Jackson, and led by Fred and Dorothy Joiner—filed a federal class action lawsuit against the city of Dallas on November 25, claiming they had been deprived of rights under the Fifth, 13th, and 14th Amendments. It would bounce around various courts before dying in 1974, the same year Giddings Johnson did. He spent the last years of his life as a plaintiff instead of happily retired in his backyard, surrounded by his bushes and flowers.

Willie Wess and his wife Irene at their home on Lawhon in 1978
What Remained: Willie Wess and his wife, Irene, at their home on Lawhon in 1978. They stayed until the State Fair finally forced them to leave, not long after this photograph was taken.

On December 7, it was announced that a new master plan for Fair Park would not be ready until at least January.

On December 18, the last of the 51 condemnation hearings took place. It was for a home owned by J.B. Jackson that he leased to Curtis Gaines, who used it to host Black Panther meetings. The city appraiser had set a value of $12,500. Surprisingly, the condemnation court awarded Jackson $30,000. Perhaps they just wanted it all to be over. (If so, the joke was on them: Jackson appealed and held up the sale for a decade.)

Assistant city attorney Kenneth Dippel said that even though 49 property owners were appealing the results of their condemnation proceedings and were awaiting jury trials, the city had the right to take possession of all of the land, since the courts could only increase the amount of the cash award, not halt condemnation proceedings.

But everyone didn’t leave right away. A handful of homeowners, including Willie Wess and his wife, Irene, managed to stay in their houses until 1978. The State Fair acted like it was doing them a favor. “Basically, these people have lived there free, and pay no taxes,” State Fair association general manager Wayne Gallagher said in March 1978, when they asked the city to finally clear the land.

“It’s a lousy deal,” Wess said at the time. He was given $8,000 for his home.

Wess died in 2012. He spent the last years of his life parking cars at a trio of lots he bought on the other side of Fitzhugh, once a simple road cutting through a tight-knit neighborhood, now a concrete monstrosity with a giant median running down its spine, putting the remaining houses as far out of sight as possible without building a wall.

His grandson, Patrick Williams, runs the parking lots now. He says the city regularly hassles him over permits, and the State Fair tries to steer people away from his lots, directing traffic toward city-owned property. He’s angry, exasperated, but not surprised.

You can forgive him for this. It’s been 50 years, and Dallas and the fair still won’t leave his family alone.

Research aided by Elizabeth Johnston.

This story originally appeared in the November issue of D Magazine. Write to [email protected]azine.com.


Zac Crain

Zac Crain

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Zac, senior editor of D Magazine, has written about the explosion in West, Texas; legendary country singer Charley Pride; Tony…

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