One of the only remaining intact Freedman’s Towns in the entire country, the Tenth Street Historic District in Oak Cliff’s importance to the community that still has roots there — as well as to the city — is something historians and preservationists feel they can’t stress enough.
The folk and period homes within the district were built in the late 19th and 20th centuries, with the city of Dallas tabulating 257 homes, four commercial buildings, three institutional buildings, and one cemetery within its boundaries.
“Just as Colonial Williamsburg tells the story of American Independence by immersing the visitor in and interpreting the built heritage of the era, so might a restored Tenth Street Freedman’s Town — on the very doorstep of one of the top public high schools in the nation — bring the story of African American Independence to life,” says the website Tenth Street Life. “Historic Tenth Street may well be the last, best chance in the nation to let the land the freedmen bought and paid for and the homes, businesses, and institutions they built on it with their own hands speak for themselves.”
It is believed that the first residents of the freedman’s town were slaves freed after the Civil War ended, many former slaves of Dallas cotton farmer William Brown Miller. A church was built in 1880, and a school opened six years later. More people arrived when T.L. Marsalis platted the neighborhood four years after that.
Restoring the district is the nation’s (and Dallas’) best and last opportunity to potentially create a history lesson that is immersive and riveting, telling the stories and dreams of the generations of Black families in Dallas as they gained their freedom, even through the dangerous and violent Reconstruction era, and beyond during the Jim Crow era, living to establish businesses that are still here today, acquiring land of their own, and building property ownership and wealth.
The fate of the district is of keen interest to Heritage Oak Cliff (formerly the Old Oak Cliff Conservation League).
“Heritage Oak Cliff (HOC), formerly the Old Oak Cliff Conservation League, was formed in 1975 primarily to rejuvenate and restore the historic Oak Cliff neighborhood of Winnetka Heights,” said Christina Rossini, the vice president of communications for the group. “HOC views all neighborhoods as partners in promoting Oak Cliff as a wonderful place to live.”
The name has changed, and nowadays the focus is on the 30 member neighborhoods within its boundaries, which stretch from I-30 South to Camp Wisdom Road.
“We activate our mission by producing community events (host architectural and cultural walking tours, political candidate forums); distributing grants to Oak Cliff neighborhoods for beautification or safety enhancement projects, and host the annual fall home tour—the oldest in Dallas,” Rossini added.
Tenth Street’s historic impact to Dallas and to Oak Cliff spurred HOC to pair with Preservation Dallas to host an installment of the Oak Cliff Live speaker’s series — “The Tenth Street Historic District: An American Dream,” on Wednesday, Jan. 23, beginning at 6:30 p.m. at Turner House.
Tenth Street expert (and District Four Landmark Commissioner) Robert Swann will speak about the district.
After earning a master’s degree in architecture from Harvard, Swann returned to Dallas. In the next 19 years or so, he watched Tenth Street decline, and in 2008 began a quest to find a house in the historic district to buy.
“The house he chose and ultimately won was vacant for a reason commonly encountered in freedmen’s towns like Tenth Street: ‘Too many heirs,’” Heritage Oak Cliff explained. “Swann’s search for those heirs became a personal quest for the origins of Tenth Street in historical fact.”
A meet and greet will start at 6:30 p.m., with the presentation beginning at 7 p.m. The Turner House is located at 401 Rosemont Ave. Admission is free, but donations are accepted.