Dallas—and the country—is experiencing the most widespread movement of direct action we have seen in more than 60 years. People are taking to the streets to demand that this city wakes up, listens, and sees the systemic and endemic racism that has defined the lives of people of color in America for what it is. If real progress is going to be made, however, that direct action must advance an agenda of change.
Based on the many conversations going on right now, there is a hunger for change. When Love Field swiftly moves to take down a statue of a racist cop, when the hosts of sports talk station The Ticket spend a week soul searching, you know we have entered a new kind of moment. Reforms that weren’t imaginable a month ago now seem possible.
Change is already happening. Los Angeles may redeploy public funds from its police budget to fund community development. The Minneapolis City Council voted to disband its police department. Even during the disastrous Dallas City Council meeting Friday, the city manager presented a list of possible reforms, and promising ideas were put forth by council members, like reimagining the police academy and banning elected officials from taking campaign donations from police unions.
This next step, however, concerns me. A knee-jerk response to the crisis will likely miss the monumental scale of the problem. Racism runs through every aspect and every institution of American society. It is baked into the structures of power that hold our city, state, and country together. Racism is so much a part of American life that we are blind to most of the insidious ways it defines our culture. Confronting that is going to take courage, not only from our neighbors who have taken to the streets but from all of us.
Over the past week, I have seen a lot of well-meaning efforts to confront the problem. There have been the numerous corporate statements backing Black Lives Matter; public symbols of support, like the blackout of Reunion Tower; and the sharing of articles and ideas on social media about how to support businesses owned by people of color, contribute to organizations that work in disadvantaged communities, and raise money to help repair the damage to properties that took the punch of the anger that manifested in Dallas’ streets. These are not meaningless gestures. They represent people in positions of power and privilege saying, “We hear you.”
But ultimately these are only gestures. They are the kinds of gestures that have been made before, and they are gestures that have proven hollow when it comes to making meaningful change. Real change is going to need to strike more deeply, and it is going to require more than giving our attention, time, and money. But to understand what real change looks like, we must first confront assumptions about how our society works.Read More
After the killing of George Floyd, in Minneapolis, I was struck by the Rev. Al Sharpton’s interview with Floyd’s brother, Philonese Floyd, in Houston. Philonese described a brief condolence phone call from President Trump.
“It was so fast,” Floyd said. “He didn’t give me an opportunity to even speak. It was hard. I was trying to talk to him, but he just kept, like, pushing me off, like ‘I don’t want to hear what you’re talking about.’… I said that I couldn’t believe they committed a modern-day lynching in broad daylight.”
George Floyd grew up in Houston. I am a native. Perhaps we danced down some of the same streets and enjoyed some of the same delights of that city. Hanging at Hermann Park, celebrating the Houston Rockets’ NBA championship, or just chilling to the No. 1 radio station, KMJQ, Majik 102 FM, a broadcast outlet I was privileged to work for.
Right now, though, the bond that connects my sadness to the Floyd family’s most is something Philonese Floyd said. Ahmaud Arbery’s father used the same phrase — a modern-day lynching — to describe what happened when white men chased his son in their trucks as Ahmaud jogged down a Georgia street. It’s an honest phrase. Most folks, it seems, would rather not confront it or how lynching has evolved. Before June 7, 1998, I was in no great hurry to dive into the topic either.Read More
In 1855, Victor Considérant, a renowned disciple of the French socialist philosopher Charles Fourier, led French, Swiss, and Belgian settlers into North Texas to establish a socialist utopian colony on the banks of the Trinity River. Before coming to Texas, Considérant had been driven into exile in Belgium after a failed insurrection against Napoleon III in 1849. While in exile, he wrote a book called Au Texas, which laid out a vision for an egalitarian society in an untouched corner of the state that Considérant depicted as a new Eden. He raised about $16 million (accounting for inflation) and arranged for the Atlantic passage of hundreds of followers. We know how the story ends. Considérant’s utopian experiment, called La Réunion, failed after 18 months.
La Réunion’s crash is often attributed to the intellectual French settlers’ inability to farm, their ill-preparedness for North Texas’ harsh climate, and financial insolvency. But James Pratt’s new book, Sabotaged: Dreams of Utopia in Texas, challenges these assumptions. Pratt describes a settlement that, despite internal divisions and difficult conditions, managed to establish a beachhead on the west bank of the Trinity that supported about 150 settlers. He also paints a portrait of Considérant as impetuous and underhanded, determined to undermine the success of La Réunion before he even arrived. Pratt’s book raises an intriguing historical “What if?” But for poor leadership, La Réunion could have survived.Read More
This past weekend Dallas lost a giant. Virginia Savage McAlester passed away from myelofibrosis on April 9. She was 76.
There are many ways to describe McAlester. She was an author, a preservationist, an architectural historian, an activist, the founder and leader of multiple non-profits, and a loyal and dedicated daughter, sister, and mother. McAlester is perhaps best known for her monumental A Field Guide to American Houses, which, after it first appeared in 1984, did nothing less than anoint McAlester as the “Queen of Historic Preservation.” The book has topped architectural best seller lists for so long that, in 2019, Curbed called her the “most popular architecture writer in America.”
But the impact of McAlester’s life extends far beyond her very influential book. In Dallas, she roused the city’s understanding and appreciation of its own architectural history, transforming the city’s conception of itself in the process.
McAlester’s book appeared at a time when, as architectural historian William Seale told the New York Times, developers charged like “wild bulls” over the city’s old neighborhoods.
“When she started broadening her preservation efforts,” Seale said, “few, if any, in Dallas had the slightest interest in historic preservation, thinking their history too new to be worthwhile.”
McAlester’s appreciation of that overlooked history stemmed from the fact that her own life and family were so deeply rooted in it.Read More
At midnight, Bob Dylan dropped the longest song he has ever recorded — a 17-minute, stream-of-conscious ballad about the JFK Assassination called Murder Most Foul. As Variety reports, it is the first new release of original material from Dylan since 2012, and why it comes now, we can only guess. Dylan released a cryptic statement with the midnight release that thanks his fans, says he hopes they find the song “interesting,” and tells them to “stay safe, stay observant.”
He leaves it to us to make what we can from the timing of the release. We are all living through a historic pandemic, nearly the entire country is in the midst of a lockdown, and many artists are releasing material or staging online concerts to help boost spirits. Listening to the new song, however, it feels like Dylan is doing more than gifting us with some new entertainment to get us through the lockdown.
The new track is a meandering, “Desolation Row”-style waterfall of free association; cryptic imagery; historical observations; and pop cultural, folkloric, and musical references. Drenched with Dylan’s characteristically wry mix of barbed critique and whimsical irony, the song is an elegy on the JFK Assassination and a meditation on the decline of the American empire. Murder Most Foul is also one of the best songs about Dallas ever written.Read More
At the end of his 900-plus page Texas epic, author Stephen Harrigan comes to grips with the Lone Star State’s immensity. Writing a single-volume history of more than five centuries of Texas “was too much.” “Texas,” Harrigan relents, “was too large, too old.” Perhaps more charitable were the words of Georgia O’Keeffe—the inspiration for Harrigan’s title, Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas. Before becoming the exemplar of American modernist painting in the mid-twentieth century, O’Keeffe was the entirety of the art faculty at West Texas State Normal College (now West Texas A&M) in Canyon. Her time in the Panhandle left her convinced that Texas was “the same big wonderful thing that oceans and the highest mountains are.”
For Harrigan—novelist, long-time Texas Monthly contributor, and all-around Texas man of letters—that bigness is a theme. It’s not just the miles upon miles of space and centuries upon centuries of time that prove daunting to cover. It’s the people, too. From the well-known—Sam Houston, Barbara Jordan, and Selena—to the fascinatingly obscure—Isabelle Talon, Satanta, and Fred Carrasco—Harrigan eschews Anglo triumphalism for a more realistic rendering of the white, African American, Hispanic, and Native American communities that populate the state’s history.
But before all that, he starts with the biggest Texan of all.
Harrigan’s entree into 500 years of Texas history is an ordinary autumn morning in Dallas. As the sun rose on October 19, 2012, Big Tex presided over Fair Park just as he had for the previous six decades. By sundown, however, the plus-sized patriarch of Texas’s yearly celebration lay in smoldering ruins.
For Harrigan, when Big Tex met his end in that conflagration, so too did an era in Texas history. The 52-foot tall cowboy was “a symbol of a simpler time” belonging “to a different Texas.” When the new Big Tex took his commanding spot in Fair Park he was “sort of a joke” put up “simply for nostalgia’s sake.” From the beginning the new Big Tex could be little more than an ironic place holder since “it was no longer possible for a single image…to truly evoke the heaving twenty-first-century mix of cultural allegiances and colliding identities that Texas had become.”
It was in that very spot, Harrigan tells us, that some seven decades earlier a group of elite Texans—headed by future Dallas Citizens Council founder R. L. Thornton—attempted to fashion such an image of cohesion amid diversity. Thornton and his coterie of rich and powerful Dallasites brought the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition to Fair Park—never mind the fact that Dallas hadn’t even existed a century hence when Anglo invaders and their Tejano allies wrested the state from Mexico.Read More
I was a freshman in high school, sitting in 5th period government class. It was right after lunch. As soon as class began, I overheard a classmate say that while she was driving back to school from eating off campus, a local radio station said Selena died. Soon, the entire class was talking about it.
Back then, the internet wasn’t as ubiquitous as today. There was no place to get instant verified information. Luckily, our classroom had a radio which we quickly turned on and listened as a radio DJ confirmed the news. She was 23 years old. Beyond that, we knew little else. At least, not during the middle of a school day. As that class ended, and we walked the crowded halls to our next period, you could hear the halls buzzing with what had just happened. The entire thing felt surreal. I doubt I’ll ever forget where I was on the day Selena died.
I wasn’t a fan of Selena. I didn’t dislike her, but neither did I listen to her music. And yet, where I grew up in El Paso, it felt impossible not to know who she was. To know her songs, even if one didn’t seek out her music. To know how she smiled and how she danced. To know see she had charisma and see how others wanted to emulate her. Selena and her music were just there.
This year, March 31 will mark 25 years since the day Selena died. She has now been dead longer than she lived. In the last quarter-century, who Selena was has evolved into what she is now. She has become a symbol of identity, inspired murals and festivals. She remains an inspiration to those alive when she sang and danced and to those who only know her from music, videos, memories, and more. And because her popularity is seemingly just increasing decades past her death, Selena is also a commodity.
In this month’s issue of D Magazine, I wrote about Selena. Who she was, how she died, how Latinos in Dallas processed her death, and how—today—people here continue to honor all she represents.Read More
With the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election only months away, candidates are on the campaign trail once again. Dallas has long been a campaign stop for numerous presidents, whether they were in office at the time, long out of office, or had the presidency in their future. The collections of Dallas Public Library’s Dallas History and Archives Division contain a plethora of presidential pictures spanning party lines and reaching back into the early twentieth century—many of which are available to view in the library’s online catalog.
The photos depicted in the following gallery are indicative of the unique materials found in the archival collections of Dallas Public Library. (Learn more by searching online in the catalog. Go to “Advanced” and use the “Limit By” option to select “Digital Archive” then type in your topic.)
Contact Dallas History & Archives Division at Dallas Public Library at (214) 670-1435 or email email@example.com with questions about the many fascinating photographic resources available.Read More
Students in Texas learning about the Harlem Renaissance will read in their high school history textbooks that there were some critics who disparaged the output of the cultural movement. High school students in California will read in their history textbooks that there has been legislation passed over the years that restricts the right to bear arms laid out the second amendment to the Constitution, but that detail is omitted in the Texas version of the exact same textbook.
These are two of the discrepancies between high school textbooks that the New York Times found in an analysis of the books used in Texas and California schools. Their report shows how the highly political process that goes into approving textbooks for American schools can alter the way history is conveyed and interpreted. This isn’t news to anyone who has seen the great documentary The Revisionaries, which takes viewers behind the scenes in the ongoing ideological battles waged over how Texas textbooks are written. Still, the report details how children growing up in different parts of the country will emerge from high school with subtle, if significant differences in how they understand this country.
Here’s how it happens:Read More
I was working on another story for D Magazine—on boxing gyms in Oak Cliff—when I heard of Campo Santo de Cemento Grande. Inside Casa Guanajuato’s boxing gym, among the murals of the Virgen de Guadalupe and idyllic landscapes serving as reminders of home, among the musty heavy bags hanging from the ceiling and faded photographs of old boxers inside cheap frames, there was a picture of Eladio R. Martinez. The Martinezes were one of the original Mexican families in Dallas, Tereso Ortiz, founder of Casa Guanajuato, told me. Around a year later, when I set out to write about them, Eladio’s youngest brother and last surviving sibling, Henry, had recently passed.
I first met Henry Jr. in the Jaycee Zaragoza Recreational Center. He invited me there to have breakfast. Homemade tortillas, refried beans, huevos con chorizo, pan dulce, coffee. Several times a week, anyone can eat a free breakfast there. It is, as Henry Jr. explained, part of the legacy his father left.
While we ate, I explained what I wanted to write. About his family and Campo Santo de Cemento Grande, the cemetery where Eladio lies beside his mother, sister, and uncle. I told him how through his family and that small graveyard, I wanted to tell part of the history of Dallas. About the laborers—Mexicans, in this case—who made cement, the literal substance that helped make Dallas into a modern city. It was dangerous, and at times deadly work. In some cases, the negative health effects did not appear until years later, after living around and breathing in those chemicals.
He agreed. He thanked me for keeping alive the memory of his community. And as he drove me around West Dallas and what once was Cement City, he spoke of what certain landmarks—some historical, others sentimental—meant to him and his family’s history. Campo Santo de Cemento Grande remains especially important. “Before my dad passed away, he said, ‘son, I just want to tell you one thing, take care of my family’s cemetery. That’s very, very important to me.”
It’s where Henry Sr. spent hours at a time. It’s where he wanted to get buried. It’s where his son, Henry Jr., still hopes to bury him. It’s where an unknown, or ignored, part of the area’s history is buried. It’s why I wrote about the Martinez family and the people like them who had—and continue to have—an important, difficult, and under-appreciated role in making Dallas what it is today.
Read it today. It is online now.Read More