David Preziosi, the Executive Director of Preservation Dallas sent me an email last week about Tenth Street. It filled my heart with hope.
“I received some great news this morning! It was announced that Tenth Street has been approved for an African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund Grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The grant will allow the Tenth Street Residential Organization (TSRO) to hire a staff person to help the organization with efforts to preserve the neighborhood. We assisted TSRO with the grant application and will continue to help them as the new staff person gets going This is very exciting news as it will be a big help in working to preserve one of our most important African American neighborhoods in Dallas.”
Tenth Street was placed on the Preservation Dallas Most Endangered Places list in 2018 and on the National Trust’s Most Endangered Historic Places in 2019.
Dallas’ Tenth Street Historic District is one of the few remaining Freedmen’s Towns that is still an active neighborhood. Established by newly freed Africans after the Civil War, it has a collection of modest folk and vernacular dwellings dating from the 1890s to the 1940s that are currently under threat of development and demolition
I’m sad to say I didn’t have a depth of knowledge about this historic district. So, I started researching. A lot of people graciously gave me quick history lessons.
Tenth Street resident Robert Swann, who is the Landmark Commissioner for District 4, was incredibly helpful, sending me resources, information, photographs, and providing a primer on his neighborhood and the challenges still faced today.
Stolen Homes From Rightful Heirs
Many of the homes in the Tenth Street neighborhood were left to ensuing generations with a simple X mark on a deed, or piece of paper because of course, many of these former slaves could not read or write.
You can see the issue. It became easy for unscrupulous investors and developers to take advantage of the situation. Homes were essentially stolen from rightful heirs because they were hard-pressed to prove their rights in the eyes of the city.
Although Tenth Street residents have been fighting City Hall for years, it got ugly in 2010. An ordinance, approved by the council, allowed the city attorney’s office to easily tear down homes smaller than 3,000 square feet. The homes in the neighborhood are generally simple wood-frame houses. There are a wide variety, however, including Craftsman Bungalows, Victorian homes, and shotgun houses like you see in New Orleans and Houston.
Before demolition was halted last year, 70 of the district’s 260 homes were razed. City attorneys maintained they needed the ordinance to expeditiously eradicate blight from beleaguered neighborhoods.
There’s an excellent word for this kind of reasoning, but my editor won’t let me use it.
The Erasure of Black History
Let’s get to the hard truth about the city’s approach with Tenth Street: It’s about erasing Black history. You have to ask why. Is this truly in the name of progress?
Historically, when it comes to Black neighborhoods, progress does not lie in the residents’ eyes, but in the deep pockets of developers who have the right political connections. And it always starts with highways.
Time and time again, highways were inserted into Black neighborhoods, disrupting Black lives. Urban renewal in these circumstances meant removing Black people.
Pride, Integrity, Perseverance, and Love
Who deems a neighborhood worthy of preservation? Surely it should be the residents. I talked to one and found out the real story.
The real story of Tenth Street is one of pride, integrity, perseverance, love, and home. Most of all, it’s about home.
I can’t think of anyone I’ve spoken to that can show us what home means more than Patricia Cox. Ms. Cox is a board member of the Tenth Street Residential Organization and is the kind of neighbor we all want. She’s engaging, funny, witty, passionate, and smart. She was born here and lives in the home her parents purchased back in the 1940s. She raised her kids here and created a business here.
“My dad was away in the navy and my mother did not have a car, so she walked the neighborhood to find a house to buy,” Cox said. “My parents worked so hard, and I could not let this house go. Everyone comes over here — my kids, my sister’s kids, my brother’s kids — because this is home.
“This was always a very nice neighborhood. I remember how it was and it can be that way again.” Cox continued. “The highway destroyed everything. It was built to separate us and keep us at a disadvantage. You could walk over the bridge to town before that. Politicians and developers have been trying to get their hands on Tenths Street since I was a girl. I moved back here in 1982, and I can tell you if a house burned down or was torn down, the city would not let you rebuild it. Why do you tear down a neighborhood you have lived and worked in? There is only one answer: Greed.”
Activists That Don’t Take No For An Answer
There have always been activist organizations in the Tenth Street neighborhood, but now they are more focused, better organized, and have learned how to get things done. The grant is evidence of that. The Inclusive Communities Project (ICP) has been instrumental in helping neighborhood activists. They have an initiative called Voices for Opportunity, which is an advocacy training program.
“The residents reached out to us to see how to handle public hearings, manage social media and to learn advocacy tools,” ICP President and Treasurer Demetria McCain said.
Member Jennifer Rangel helped the residents formulate their desires in the grant.
“Our position at ICP is Tenth Street needs all possible resources,” McCain said. “It’s a David and Goliath story when you look at the residences. It’s also a fair housing issue. It starts with that ordinance that protects only historic houses and structures over 3,000 square feet.”
It’s evident two things must happen immediately to preserve Tenths Street and Black history. The 3,000-square-foot rule must be eradicated, and the staff person the grant will fund must be a watchdog and an active advocate for the community.
“We want to rebuild homes and to keep our homes, “Cox said. “I’m going to fight for my neighborhood until I can’t. Then, hopefully, my nieces and nephews will take over.”
The last chapter on this fight for preservation is not written. Let’s hope it’s both a happy ending and a new beginning.