A Daily Conversation About Dallas

Dallas History

Of Art and Failed Socialist Uprisings: The Wild Story of Dallas’ First Painter

| 1 month ago

Charles DeMorse, a newspaper editor, checked into a room at the Crutchfield House, a modest two-story inn on Dallas’ courthouse square. The year was 1852. DeMorse was crisscrossing North Texas on horseback, covering court cases for his paper. In the morning, he would ride on to Denton, but that evening he wanted to unwind. From his hotel window, DeMorse spotted on the far side of the square something called The Arts Saloon. It was a curious name. “Looking again, I tried to read it ‘The Ark Saloon,’ ” DeMorse later wrote, “not understanding what a gallery of the fine arts should be doing at the city of the Three Forks, but rather supposing that a drinkery had been so termed.”

DeMorse headed over and discovered that The Arts Saloon was, indeed, more salon than saloon. Part art gallery, part dance hall, part photography studio, The Arts Saloon was run by a peculiar Frenchman named Adolphe Gouhenant. Close readers of Dallas history will recognize the name.

Gouhenant makes cameos in a dozen or so Dallas volumes, though his story is often muddled or misrepresented. Gouhenant has been lumped in with the French settlers of the La Réunion colony, even though Gouhenant arrived in Dallas years before the socialist utopians. Some Dallas historians, like DeMorse, mistake Gouhenant’s Arts Saloon for a frontier bar. In Dallas: The Deciding Years, A.C. Greene notes that Gouhenant’s establishment was “something more significant”; it was a daguerreotype studio responsible for most of the earliest photographs of Dallas. But even calling Gouhenant the city’s first photographer sells him short.

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Dallas History

Tales From the Dallas History Archives: The Crowds In Our Past, From Bonnie Parker to JFK

| 2 months ago

This year will be remembered. With the COVID-19 pandemic, protests against systemic racism, and a presidential election with the highest voter turnout in United States history, 2020 is clearly historic.

As I find myself looking through archival collections at the Dallas Public Library through the lens of social distancing and this year’s events, many from our past stand out.

The crowd photos depicted in the following gallery are from the Dallas Public Library’s Dallas History and Archives Collection and are available through the library’s online catalog. Plenty seem unusual in these days of isolation, like the bank robber Bonnie Parker’s funeral and the crowd surrounding the subsequent 1935 “harboring trial” of her family and friends.

Also depicted are photos of Dallas segregation in travel and State Fair gatherings, images of horse-drawn transportation and Love Field aviation generations ago, as well as John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson visits in Dallas. As this month is the anniversary of the JFK assassination, those images have an additional timely significance. 

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Dallas History

The First Black Dentist in Texas

| 3 months ago

Marcellus Cooper was born into slavery, in Dallas, on February 12, 1862. His mother was Black, his father was White, and his owners were the Caruth family. He went to grade school in a freedman’s town in what is now Lake Highlands. He was the treasurer of a Black library association and worked in a Jewish-owned department store while saving money for dentistry school. He opened a practice in a sanitarium operated by Texas’ first Black surgeon before moving to a building designed by Texas’ first Black architect.

Now, 91 years after his death, Cooper is set to get a historical marker on land that once belonged to his former owners.    

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Dallas History

The Amateur Sleuths Who Found a Missing Piece of Dallas History

| 4 months ago

In the Lowest Greenville area, between Lakewood Heights and Vickery Place, there is a little neighborhood called Belmont. The accepted history for many years has been that the neighborhood got its name from August Belmont Jr., a prominent New York financier and the son of the man who founded the Belmont Stakes. The accepted history has been wrong.

Awhile back, a couple that owns a 100-year-old Craftsman in the neighborhood began researching the history of their house. Geyden and Barry Sage found far more than they were looking for. I love stories like these, pieces of our history that lie at our feet as we walk past them every day without noticing. So of course I wanted to publish it, especially when Geyden showed me all the cool early 1900s ads for the Belmont Addition that ran in the Dallas Morning News.

Thanks to the Sages’ doggedness, the Belmont Addition Conservation District has (quietly) updated its official history, and the September issue of D Magazine contains a fascinating story about the city’s history. That story went online today. Discover the truth for yourself.

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Dallas History

The Rise and Fall of the Million Dollar Saloon

| 5 months ago

Allegedly, the Million Dollar Saloon was the world’s first “gentleman’s club.” That may be a bit of a boast, but it certainly was the first and most famous topless bar to serve mixed drinks in Dallas. Though it had a good run, as with all wild rides, it couldn’t last. For a decade the peach-​colored monolith on Greenville Avenue, across from The Shops at Park Lane, has slumped into oblivion. Finally fed up with complaints from neighbors about vagrancy, the city of Dallas in June filed a lawsuit against Furrh Inc., the owner of record, and Nick Mehmeti, the company’s president and director, seeking to force them to secure or dispose of what has become a hazardous site of exposed wires, human waste, and filth. Here’s how it came to that.

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Dallas Civil Rights Legend Peter Johnson Talks John Lewis, Police Violence, Protest, and Hope

| 5 months ago

Over the past few months, Dallas residents have filled the streets to protest police brutality. Civil rights icon John Lewis passed away. All the while, I kept thinking of Rev. Peter Johnson. Johnson is Dallas’ preeminent veteran of the Civil Rights Movement. He began his work when he was 18 as a student organizer with the Congress of Racial Equality, and, later on, for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He helped organize civil rights campaigns throughout the South.

In 1969, he arrived in Dallas ostensibly to show a documentary about Martin Luther King. Jr. that had been made to help raise money for the cause. Johnson’s bosses back in Atlanta told him to tread lightly in Dallas. In those days, Dallas had a fierce reputation, and the city could be dangerous for a young Black civil rights agitator. But Johnson didn’t like what he saw in Dallas, so he stuck around and started causing trouble. Good trouble.

If you’ve read Jim Schutze’s The Accommodation then you will be familiar with Johnson’s role in organizing residents around Fair Park, whose homes were being stolen by the city, and his work launching Operation Breadbasket, which campaigned against structural inequality and urban hunger. Now 75, Johnson has spent his entire life fighting racism, inequality, and all their symptoms—from homelessness and housing to workplace discrimination and voting rights—often at the risk of his body and well-being.

Especially after reading the Dallas Morning News’ recent report of the abject brutality exhibited by some Dallas police officers during the recent protests, I wanted to hear what Johnson thought of it all. I found that—in addition to being disheartened by the cancellation of the college football season—Johnson is equal parts enraged and hopeful about the state of our city and the nation. Here is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

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How Can Dallas Turn the Lessons of the Streets Into a Program of Change?

| 7 months ago

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.

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Dallas History

James Byrd Jr. and the Modern-Day Lynching

| 7 months ago

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.

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Why Didn’t La Réunion Survive?

| 8 months ago

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.

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Architecture & Design

Remembering Dallas’ Pioneering Preservationist Virginia Savage McAlester

| 9 months ago

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.

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