Will Dallas let an irreplaceable piece of its history slip away?

Will Dallas let an irreplaceable piece of its history slip away?

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Joanna Hampton
Contributed by:
Joanna Hampton
Robert Swann
Contributed by:
Robert Swann

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Tenth Street is Bleeding

Will Dallas let an irreplaceable piece of its history slip away?

Like many Americans who came of age in the South at the close of the U.S. Civil War, Reuben Orr and Caroline Jackson found little in their Alabama farm community to encourage them in a new life there. When the Orrs married in 1865, Reuben was barely 20; Caroline was in her late teens. Soon after the birth of their first child, Belle, in October 1869, the Orrs moved to Breckenridge, roughly midway between Fort Worth and Abilene.

As early as 1893, Belle, then 24, lived and worked at the Oak Cliff home of a downtown Dallas attorney. In 1906, Belle married Sam Black. The entrepreneurial couple ran a variety of businesses from their home and neighboring properties that they had acquired on Tenth Street. Though best known for the undertaking business that became Black & Clark, the Blacks also operated a domino parlor, a grocery, a drugstore, a transfer company, and the Live and Let Live Barber Shop. 

Sam C. Black, founder of Black & Clark Funeral Home. // Photo from Black & Clark

Belle’s younger sisters, Melissa and Annie, followed her to Oak Cliff. Annie’s son, Jackson Clark, was barely 16 when he became a clerk for Sam Black in 1916. Black’s example inspired his young nephew to enter the Crawford Gunter Embalming School.

Charles Jackson Clark, founding partner, Black & Clark Funeral Home. // Photo from Black & Clark

In 1915, a widowed Annie Clark married Edward G.H. Williams, her neighbor. The Williamses planned to build a two-story frame house on a Ninth Street lot directly behind the house they rented on Church Street. In 1920, Mrs. Williams went to the Dallas building inspector to apply for a building permit. When the city clerk entered her permit into the record book, he didn’t write “two- story frame house.” He wrote the most offensive of racial slurs to describe the African American owners of the house, exemplifying the racial divide in Dallas.

Annie Williams built her two-story house and lived there with her husband until shortly before her death in 1936. In the late 1950s, Interstate 35 came through right next to the Williamses’ house. It was demolished. The billboard that stands there now turns its back to the Tenth Street community, beckoning instead to traffic coursing I-35E. All that remains to celebrate the legacy of Reuben and Caroline Orr, born in slavery in Georgia and Alabama, is a slur in a yellowing register. Ironically, Tenth Street flourished for decades despite the overt racism of Jim Crow. Against the systemic racism of today, however, the community is all but defenseless. Policy enacted to accomplish “urban renewal” results in what James Baldwin dubbed “Negro removal.”

Compared with Sanborn maps from 1922, when the Williamses’ house was under construction, the Fairchild aerial survey of 1930 reveals great gains in neighborhood density and a thriving area fueled by families like the Williamses and the Clarks. Fast-forward to the 1970s: Despite fragmentation caused by the extension of the Clarendon thoroughfare through Miller’s Four Acres beginning in 1942, the truncation of Tenth Street and Betterton Circle by Stemmons Freeway (I-35E) in 1958, and the capping of Cedar Creek Branch, the Tenth Street neighborhood retained remarkable historic integrity.

Looking east, intersection of North Cliff Street and East Tenth Street, February 2011. // Photo: Robert Swann

By 1991, however, Dallas’ “most intact freedman’s town” was in trouble. Dallas responded with a city landmark designation for the district in 1993. The National Register of Historic Places listed the district in 1994, noting that “the greatest threat to the integrity of the neighborhood has been through demolition.”

Today, as then, Tenth Street is bleeding.

While gentrification, development, and lack of affordable housing are concerns in most urban communities of color, African American historic districts have unique worries on top of those. Demolition in a historic district not only depletes the stock of potentially affordable housing, but also breaks the link between present and past, denying a larger community its history.

Vacant lot on Noah Street with Greater El Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in background, April 2020. // Photo: Robert Swann

A demolition in the historic Tenth Street Freedman’s Town is exactly like the destruction of a manuscript in an archive. The loss of fabric, compounded by a lack of primary source scholarship focused on Tenth Street, accounts for boundaries that do not accurately reflect the historic development pattern. The boundaries as drawn further dilute the district by including areas of marginal significance while leaving highly significant areas unrecognized and unprotected.

Additionally, false origin myths give credit to local slaveholders, robbing freedmen and their descendants of their historic agency in the creation of their own communities and institutions. These and other factors perpetuate a view that Tenth Street is not worth the effort of preservation and study.

Because much of the district is on the survey that William H. Hord settled in 1845, speculation arose that Hord slaves who remained in place after Emancipation established the Tenth Street Freedman’s Town on land that their former owner gave them.

But a careful review of Original Oak Cliff plat maps and Dallas County deed records indicates that by 1887, investors in the Oak Cliff real estate venture held all of the Hord Survey land, only later owned and occupied by Tenth Street freedmen.

Conceived as a retreat for Dallas’ elite families, Oak Cliff was not for sale to freedmen, but Betterton’s subdivision of Miller’s Four Acres lay beyond town limits. On Jan. 12, 1888, Anthony and Hillary Andrew Boswell of Talladega County, Alabama, became the first African Americans to own home lots on Tenth Street in Miller’s Four Acres. In the single block of Tenth Street that lay at the foot of the 1846 African American burial ground, the Boswells and those who followed them established residences, groceries, a school and two churches on 18 narrow lots extending south to Cedar Creek and Cedar Creek Branch. During the decade or so that Miller’s Four Acres flourished, Anthony Boswell’s youngest son, Bert, received the education that took him all the way through Meharry Medical College by 1907.

George Lawson Boswell, son of Anthony Boswell, and children, about 1912, when the Boswells resided at 1201 East Ninth Street. George Lawson Boswell owned the grocery store where younger brother Bert Boswell (later Dr. Bert Boswell) clerked in 1900 during the summer off from Wiley College. // Photo provided by Tina Sabbat, descendant of George Lawson Boswell

Dr. Bert Boswell, youngest son of Anthony and Elizabeth Boswell, was brought to Miller's Four Acres in 1888 when he was eight years old. He was educated at the school established by his family. He went on to Wiley College in Marshall, TX. During the summer of 1900, he returned to Miller's Four Acres to clerk at his brother George Lawson Boswell's grocery story. Dr. Bert Boswell graduated from Meharry Medical College in 1907. His example inspired his grandson, Dr. Vincent Boswell, to become an orthopedic surgeon. // Photo provided by Monica Boswell Mitchell, granddaughter of Dr. Bert Boswell

The African American community might have remained confined to Miller’s Four Acres but for a major national recession, the Panic of 1893. Oak Cliff’s calamity was black Tenth Street’s opportunity. By 1896, discouraged Oak Cliff investors were selling lots to anyone with means, including African Americans. The community born in Miller’s Four Acres spread west onto Hord Survey land. By the time Clarendon Avenue was cut through Miller’s Four Acres between 1942 and 1950, the area’s role as the cradle of Tenth Street was fading from memory.

When Clarendon was established as the eastern boundary of the historic district, fully half of Miller’s Four Acres was left out. In 2017, without the protection of a landmark review, a craftsman bungalow that had stood in Miller’s Four Acres since the 1920s was bulldozed, along with a handful of undistinguished shotgun houses from the postwar era.

Interurban Trestle (demolished 2014) at what was formerly Tenth Street, now Clarendon Avenue, looking west into Tenth Street Freedman's Town, February 2011. // Photo: Robert Swann

Unabated demolition continues to squander the potential of existing housing stock to address affordability. Increasingly, the hope of Tenth Street is less a matter of preservation than of wholesale restoration and reconstitution.

A fire at a contributing residence at 123 Anthony Street on December 13, 2019. // Photo: Brian Cox, Dallas firefighter on the scene that night.

A precedent for accomplishing this goal through painstaking reconstruction and relocation of period-appropriate structures into the district exists at Historic Richmondtown on Staten Island. In turn, Historic Richmondtown took inspiration from the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg. In a 1982 interview, William Hansen Deierhoi, a 1912 graduate of the College of William & Mary, recalled Williamsburg before the restoration: “Well, it was a kind of a rundown place. The houses were dilapidated. The streets were weedy. Duke of Gloucester Street was full of mud holes whenever it rained. It was a, really a town of no, no real character much.”

By the late 1920s, the restoration of Williamsburg had grown even more daunting from the erection of many structures inappropriate to the colonial period — including a new high school at the site that once held the Governor’s Palace.

By comparison, the relatively undeveloped character of Tenth Street today presents far fewer obstacles to restoration. Whereas Historic Richmondtown is pure museum, today’s Colonial Williamsburg includes 75 privately occupied residences — a potential model for Tenth Street.

Some areas critical to telling the story of Tenth Street, like Miller’s Four Acres, are now so little in evidence that they warrant museum-quality reconstruction and interpretation. Historic Tenth Street Freedman’s Town might practically take the form of a residential landmark district in which seamlessly embedded units of pure restoration invite the visitor behind closed doors for an immersive experience.

Mose Hersey, born in slavery in Louisiana. Interviewed for the Slave Narrative Collection by the Federal Writers Project in December, 1937, at 1119 East Tenth Street. // Photos from the Slave Narrative Collection at the Rare Book Room of the Library of Congress

Transportation planning of the 1950s, centered on the automobile, exerted its own destructive pulls on the community’s fabric. Strategies for mending neighborhoods disrupted by thoroughfares — such as removing the divisive roadway altogether or decking the roadway to create a park — present opportunities and challenges for a Tenth Street restoration. Removing Clarendon would make the restoration of Miller’s Four Acres to its 1890s appearance possible while stimulating a more holistic approach to area transit. On the other hand, a proposed 5.8-acre park that would deck the portion of I-35E between Ewing and Marsalis might do to Tenth Street what the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge did to the once-affordable barrios of West Dallas.

Without a strategy that identifies, preserves, strengthens, interprets and, where required, restores the unique character of what was and is already there, Tenth Street is in danger. The proposed Southern Gateway Park will drive speculative investment, leading to rapid, unchecked gentrification in the area. Although the historic overlay that created the Landmark district is part of such a strategy, it is not enough. If it is to succeed, the Tenth Street Freedman’s Town must fulfill a more ambitious vision as the crown jewel of a greater cultural campus.

1119 East Tenth Street (on left, built by carpenter John Siler, 1916) and 1121 East Tenth Street (on right, built by Richard J. Moore, 1896). The staircase from the street is shared by the two properties, which were owned by the same family from 1910 until 1977. The concrete retaining wall is believed to have been poured in about 1943, when East Tenth Street was paved to connect with the new extension of Clarendon Avenue all the way to Corinth Street Road. // Photo: Robert Swann, February 2011

The same is true of the deck park. To make sense as a pedestrian bridge, the deck park needs a surrounding walkable campus anchored by destinations that beg for connection, and it needs visitors on foot. The Dallas Zoo and Townview Magnet High School are already in place to anchor an Oak Cliff Cultural Campus. The Kovandovitch House, the Fleming Paper Mill, The Bottom, the ruins of the Corsicana Interurban, and the Tenth Street Freedman’s Town need restoration, interpretation, or development to be part of a coherent urban campus. A civic investment as substantial as the Southern Gateway Park deserves better than the “build now, plan later” approach that often typifies Dallas. So does a placemaking opportunity as rife with meaning and historic resonance as the Tenth Street Freedman’s Town.

Tenth Street descendants built on the foundations laid by their freedmen forebears to increase opportunities for African Americans in every sphere of American life. In 1948, Reuben and Caroline Orr’s grandson, Charles Jackson Clark, bought out his partner’s widow and made Black & Clark the leading African American-owned funeral business in Dallas. Anthony Boswell’s grandnephew, Duane Boswell Mason, became an attorney. By the early 1960s, D.B. Mason led the Dallas County chapter of the Democratic Progressive Voters League, a coalition organized in Dallas in 1936 to defend African American voting rights. Beginning in 1960, C.J. Clark served as one of the seven black Dallas leaders on the Committee of 14, a biracial body formed to ease the gradual desegregation of Dallas.

As civil rights gains accelerated, the conditioning of long- suppressed expectations among black Texans acted as a brake on the progress of social justice there. In defense of his group’s decision to sit out the “March for Jobs and Freedom” planned for Austin on Aug. 28, 1963, Mason raised Gov. John Connally’s appointment of C.J. Clark as the first African American on the State Board of Morticians as evidence that Connally had “advanced our cause as well as could be expected in Texas at this time.” He added, “In Texas, we must take things slowly.”

That very year, in reply to assertions like D.B. Mason’s, Malcolm X said, “What gains? All you have gotten is tokenism — one or two Negroes in a job or at a lunch counter so the rest of you will be quiet.”

Over half a century later, what Malcolm X observed about tokenism in the workplace and in public accommodations applies to African American built heritage. In exchange for entire communities, African Americans are asked to settle for “representative” structures scattered far and wide, or worse, a marker tucked into a block of incompatible development.

To understand the organic development of Tenth Street is to know that its story could not be told by a single structure or monument any more than the complex interaction of melody and improvisation that defines American jazz might be preserved by saving a single note.


Joanna L. Hampton, AIA is director at Omniplan.
Robert Swann is a Tenth Street resident and member of the Dallas Landmark Commission.