The History Of Race In Dallas: Black Movements, Part Two
Integration efforts citywide post 1950's
“Where the process was messy, often explosive and ragtag in other cities, it was neat, corporate, carefully managed and efficiently repressive in Dallas.” – Jim Schutze, The Accommodation, 1987
Sam Tasby wanted his kids to go to the neighborhood school.
The problem was that his kids were Black, and the school was all-white.
Tasby paid bus fares for his children to go to a school outside their neighborhood throughout the 1960s, well after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision desegregating schools across the country.
This landmark Supreme Court case sounded the first death knell for the Dallas racial order, but it would take decades to completely crumble.
After the 1954 decision, the Dallas Morning News opined their hopes that by dismantling legal segregation, Dallas could continue unchanged with informal segregation and avoid any consequences.
Dallas Independent School District superintendent W.T. White, who led the district from 1946-1968, declared he would not cooperate with desegregation. White also forbade school district employees from participating in the NAACP in any capacity.
Other influential Dallas voices fervently defended racial separation. W.A. Criswell, the pastor at First Baptist Dallas, preached religious justification for racial segregation at a conference in South Carolina, attacking universal brotherhood under God as “spurious doctrine” and encouraging even religious, denominational segregation.
The Rev. Ralph H. Langley, pastor at Wilshire Baptist Church, said he agreed Black people should be treated equally but felt “separate, but equal” treatment was sufficient.
However, multi-racial religious support for integration also emerged. In May 1968, over 300 white ministers and 115 Black ministers in the Dallas area joined forces to release an anti-segregation letter. In this statement, the group called segregation “a blight and a sin.”
Catholic and Jewish liberals in Dallas were also against segregation and largely supported the NAACP.
Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church pastor Robert P. Douglass supported desegregation of schools, especially to rid younger generations of the bigotry prevalent in his own.
“The Christian gospel gave people the idea that no man is second class in the sight of God,” Douglass said in a 1961 sermon.
Dallas federal judges William H. Atwell and Thomas Whitfield Davidson handed down ruling after ruling favorable to the segregated school system. Higher appellate courts promptly reversed them.
The NAACP championed these cases, which involved the school district turning Black children away from all-white schools.
After two denied attempts to stop desegregation, Atwell finally ruled in favor of it in 1957, but school officials appealed his ruling because it was unrealistic to implement. The Fifth Circuit Court agreed.
Similarly, Davidson fought against desegregation orders and even offered up a more delicate, voluntary plan for desegregation, which the appeals court denied. This higher court forced him to provide a true desegregation order.
In Davidson’s 1960 decision, the impetus that desegregated schools in Dallas, he asserted he was not a racist.
“Never have we at any time entertained one unkind thought toward the colored race,” he said. “My wet-nurse as a child was a Negro woman.”
Nevertheless, he made his reluctance to put forth the ruling abundantly clear.
“To abolish a long-established social status or educational system by force is un-American,” he said. “Such may be amicably done only by consent of the parties affected.”
Still, on a national scale of reactions to integration, Dallas was not among the most violent.
Dallas municipal buses desegregated without incident in 1956, at the same time as others in the nation after an anti-bus-segregation federal court ruling.
The first Dallas ISD school desegregation also occurred mostly peacefully in 1961, save for a burning cross put on the lawn of Lisbon Elementary School, now The H.I. Holland Elementary School at Lisbon.
A crowd of 400 men waving signs with racial slurs in Mansfield, Texas prevented three Black students from joining an all-white school in 1956. There, they hung effigies representing Black people. The principal refused to take them down.
The next year, integration of the “Little Rock Nine” into Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas was so contentious that then-President Eisenhower had to give the nine Black students an army escort.
Dallas did not want to become the new Little Rock.
The Dallas Citizens Council, a powerful group made up of local business leaders, pressured Dallas businesses to stop discriminating against Black customers, to limited success. It also sponsored the creation of a film titled “Dallas at the Crossroads” in 1961. The film urged white people to be civil during upcoming federally-enforced desegregation.
The Dallas Citizens Council were, by no means, racial justice activists. Their motivation was a desire to contain and moderate racial conflict, on both sides. Segregation was becoming bad for business, and Dallas was at risk of triggering boycotts from outside companies.
Members of the Dallas Citizens Council formed a coalition with prominent Black leaders, like A. Maceo Smith and attorney William J. Durham, called the Committee of 14. The committee convinced almost 50 downtown Dallas restaurants to desegregate in 1961.
The willingness of established Black leadership to compromise with the Dallas Citizens Council, or “accommodationism,” as Dallas columnist Jim Schutze put it, brewed resentment with a younger generation of activists who saw compliant methods as enabling inequality.
In turn, older Black leaders like the Rev. Ernest C. Estell, who was a member of the Committee of 14, criticized disruptive protests and sit-ins, which he believed were ineffective.
Law enforcement and the white political establishment were hostile towards direct-action protests as well, especially as the “Red Scare” era ramped up and fears of communism became linked with disapproval of Black civil rights activism.
Despite the extensive coaxing Dallas elites did, the desegregation at that time was largely a token, ceremonial effort.
Dallas ISD planned desegregation as a “stair-step” plan, integrating one grade each year.
That first year in 1961 involved only 18 Black children across eight formerly all-white elementary schools. By 1964, only 131 of the 9,400 Black students in Dallas ISD were in desegregated classrooms. Despite mounting federal pressure to move quickly, only 57 of 177 campuses were integrated by the time 1970 came along.
Still, Dallas ISD declared itself desegregated in 1967.
Tasby sought to overhaul this ambling, leisurely desegregation process. After securing legal assistance, Tasby sued new Dallas ISD superintendent Nolan Estes for continuing to operate a dual school system.
This 1971 case, Tasby v. Estes, led to Judge William M. Taylor declaring that Dallas ISD still ran a segregated system. However, it wasn’t truly resolved until a decade later.
Each of Taylor’s court-ordered desegregation plans were struck down by the Fifth Circuit. The court proceedings were complicated, and at one point, they reached the Supreme Court. Eventually, it was transferred over to Judge Barefoot Sanders in hopes of creating a plan that survived an appeal.
The most controversial aspect of the plan was busing. During the 1970s, Dallas ISD attempted to integrate schools by busing Black students into historically white schools. Black students felt unwelcome in their new schools, which were often far away from their neighborhoods.
At the same time, the district suffered from “white flight” as white Dallasites fled Dallas ISD for private schools or suburban districts.
After the Fifth Circuit upheld Sanders’ desegregation plan, Dallas ISD finally was able to start the process of desegregation sans busing and set up a system that still exists today. To create this plan, the court worked with a tri-ethnic committee to monitor Dallas ISD’s progress.
They employed the use of special programs to improve schools in Black neighborhoods, so Black students didn’t have to be bused long distances to get quality education.
Dallas ISD converted previously all-Black schools to magnet schools to improve education in those areas, but also to attract white students for further integration. They built other new and integrated schools. Sanders ordered Dallas ISD to change attendance zones for schools and employ a diverse faculty.
Dallas ISD was under court supervision for the entire period of time they underwent the desegregation process. Sanders didn’t declare the district to be officially desegregated until 2003.
Around the same time Tasby started fighting for desegregation, activists in Fair Park were fighting for their homes. After complaints from State Fair visitors about surrounding neighborhoods, the city of Dallas claimed they needed extra parking as a pretense for demolishing Black homes and increasing fair attendance.
The residents of the Fair Park area partnered with white members of the University Park United Methodist Church to form the Fair Park Block Partnership. Peter Johnson of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights group, helped them protest against the demolition, prompting criticism from first Black city councilman and Committee of 14 alum George Allen about his methods.
“I look with disfavor on an outsider coming in here…organizing a boycott,” Allen said in 1969. “Sure there are some inequities, but we need to work at this through Black leadership that has been working a long time and is really getting things done.”
Johnson made an empty but strategic threat to launch a protest during the nationally televised Cotton Bowl Parade in Dallas, which earned the church in which they gathered several bomb threats.
His threat also earned the homeowners a personal audience with the mayor, J. Erik Jonsson, which was unheard of at this time.
In an even more unprecedented turn of events, Fair Park homeowner J.B. Jackson ended up getting the honor of a seat in the mayor’s car during the parade. The Fair Park homeowners eventually lost their homes, but they were paid more at the end than initially offered.
Veterans of the Fair Park protest like Elsie Faye Heggins and Al Lipscomb went on to become important figures who fought for the fair representation of Dallas’ Black population and forced Dallas politics to keep its needs in mind.
Heggins and Lipscomb pushed for creation of single-member districts for city council, as opposed to the “at-large” system, which polled Dallas as a whole to elect city council representatives. Lipscomb filed a lawsuit targeting the system in Dallas, and in 1975, federal judge Eldon Mahon ruled the system unconstitutional because it disadvantaged Black voters.
By 1976, Dallas adopted a new 8-3 system, which had eight single-member district elected council members, with the remaining two council members and the mayor running city-wide. Because Dallas is a council-mayor system, the mayor is the head of the city council rather than the city’s chief executive, which is the city manager.
Heggins eventually became the first Black member of the city council who was not affiliated with Dallas’ white establishment. She served two terms, from 1980 to 1984, and led a successful reapportionment of the city council districts to better represent minority communities. After Heggins, Lipscomb joined the council, serving seven terms before resigning in 2000.
By then, the council election system had undergone more changes. Roy Williams and Marvin Crenshaw filed a suit in 1988 with the encouragement of council member Diane Ragsdale, who was an alumna of Juanita Craft’s NAACP youth council. The pair charged that the size of the districts made it too difficult for minority candidates to compete. At that point, the city council never had more than two Black members at a time.
“When you would run for that large seat, you would need to, at least, have a warchest of $3-400,000,” Crenshaw said to KERA in 2008. “That was hard for candidates to raise, in particular, people of color.”
Federal Judge Jerry Buchmeyer struck down the 8-3 system in 1990.
“The history of minority participation in the political process of Dallas is not one of choice,” Buchmeyer said in his summary of the opinion. “It is a record of what Blacks and Hispanics have been permitted to do by the white majority.”
Though Dallas voted for a 10-4-1 system in a 1989 referendum, it faced opposition from Black and Hispanic leaders, and the Justice Department did not approve it. This system expanded the number of single member districts to 10, while creating four new regional seats, with the mayor still running city-wide.
Finally, in 1991, Buchmeyer ordered Dallas to use a 14-1 system for its upcoming election, and that’s the system Dallas uses to this day. Fourteen districts vote for their own council member every two years.
Opponents of the system, like former city council member Donna Blumer, said the system fragmented the council and left voters with only one member they could talk to. If the member didn’t care, they were out of luck.
But the 14-1 system’s champions, like Ragsdale, say the system gave minority populations a fair chance at representation and made Dallas a true democracy.
“The key here is that the structure allows one to improve things,” Ragsdale said in a 2008 KERA program. “The structure allows for greater opportunity. It increases the probability that public policy will be equitable.”
In his 1987 book “The Accommodation,” Schutze claimed the biggest obstacle to change in Dallas was that the hold of the white business elite over the city’s politics had only recently broken, and the city wasn’t used to having a robust pluralistic democracy.
Since Schutze’s claim, and in the almost 30 years since the 1991 switch to the 14-1 system, Dallas has improved massively.
“After I was elected as one of the first Latino council members under 14-1, I realized the Dallas I grew up in—the one where policemen routinely abused your friends, the one where you expected little or no city services, the one where you were turned away because of the color of your skin—was gone,” said former Dallas City Council member Domingo Garcia, writing for D Magazine in 2010.
Dallas still suffers from racial inequality in areas of education, income and health despite the improvements. Because of the work of civil rights leaders, however, Dallas is a place where the right of Black people to be treated with equal respect is no longer a question, but an assumption, even if the city has yet to achieve true equality.