Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Between lynchings, firebombings, and police shootings, Thursday's tragedy came with an ugly context.
Last Thursday night in downtown Dallas, five police officers were killed by sniper-style fire that broke out toward the end of a peaceful rally protesting the recent police shootings of two black men—Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The rally was attended by about 800 protesters and patrolled by about 100 law enforcement officers. The alleged gunman, Micah Xavier Johnson, reportedly told police that he was “upset about recent police shootings” and “wanted to kill white people, especially white officers.”
The irony is tragic. In recent years, the Dallas Police Department has made admirable strides in reducing excessive force and officer-involved shootings, with a focus on community policing and de-escalation strategies. In a metropolitan area where black citizens represent about a quarter of the population, that’s significant. African Americans are disproportionately subjected to police brutality in the U.S.
Thursday’s racially charged tragedy was not without local historic precedent, either. Like so many American cities, Dallas’s past is marked by racial bloodshed. In spite of progress, the scars of prejudiced policies and violence are still manifest in the city’s divides. Michael Phillips, a scholar of Texas race relations at Collin College, tells CityLab via email, “There is a long, bitter, ugly history behind this terrible vent.”
Here are a few, incomplete episodes in that history.
On July 8, 1860, just 19 years after Dallas was founded, a fire destroyed much of the city—“one of most terrible conflagrations it has of late been our fortune to record,” the New York Times lamented at the time. The flames began in a popular downtown drugstore, then spread to a dry goods mercantile, a grocery, an insurance agency, brickyards and saddle shops, and finally consumed an entire city square.
Probably, the fire was the product of exceptionally hot weather and “new and volatile phosphorous matches” for sale at the drugstore, according to the Texas State Historical Association. But a few days later, a white Dallas newspaper editor named Charles Pryor came up with a far more sensationalized explanation in letters published in a number of Texas newspapers. Although he did not cite any sources, Pryor argued the fire had been an act of abolitionists and slaves who sought "to devastate, with fire and assassination, the whole of Northern Texas." Calling the plot "a regular invasion, and a real war," Pryor wrote to another white editor outside of Dallas: "You… are in as much danger as we are.”
Talk of abolition, slave rebellion, and secession were already very much in the air, and Pryor’s words resonated with many white, pro-slavery Texans. They sparked what are now called the Texas Troubles, a panic that led to the deaths of at least 30 (and possibly as many as 100) blacks and whites at the hands of white vigilantes around the state. In Dallas, one “night patrol” targeted three slaves as the fire plot’s ringleaders—Patrick Jennings, Sam Smith, and another man called Cato—and hanged them by the banks of the Trinity River. No evidence of their wrongdoing was found.
Though “the troubles” themselves simmered down within months, they paved the way for Texas’s secession during the Civil War. And they weren’t the end of lynchings in Dallas. On March 3, 1910, a mob of 5,000 lynched a black man accused of rape named Allen Brooks on a downtown welcome arch, which was torn down not long after. As with the vast majority of lynching episodes, no historical marker exists in either of these locations. Indeed, according to Phillips and other historians, these incidents are scarcely discussed as part of state or local history.
“Dallas has done a good job of pretending it was not part of the South,” Phillips says. “But that Confederate past still casts a very large shadow.”
Redlining and firebombing
Through the mid-20th century, public facilities in Dallas were racially segregated under city charter and Plessy v Ferguson. Federal policies enforced these divides further. In the 1930s, U.S. housing officials used race as a central factor in determining which urban areas to approve mortgages in. Under this practice, swathes of nonwhite and poor Dallas neighborhoods were “redlined” in maps by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation on the basis of their proximity to industry, cheap housing stock, and “type of population.” With nonwhite homebuyers in these areas denied access to loans, redlining perpetuated disinvestment and neighborhood decline.
In the 1940s and ‘50s, population growth and migration from rural areas stretched Dallas’s housing supplies for black families to the limit. This forced many into substandard living conditions, including hand-built shacks with open toilets, on the outskirts of the city. Some managed to purchase homes in traditionally white, working-class neighborhoods around South Dallas. In response, according to Phillips’s 2006 book White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion in Dallas, 1841-2001, white residents firebombed, burned, and vandalized many newly acquired properties as a way of enforcing existing lines of segregation. The city did little to halt this violence, and police never made any arrests, according to a 2004 Clark Atlanta University PhD dissertation.
Housing conditions and availability for black families got so bad by the 1950s that a racial relations adviser for the Federal Housing Administration remarked that "it is harder to find houses for Negroes in Dallas than in any other city in the South." Some public housing was eventually built, but it was limited to a few segregated areas and maintained to slum-like conditions. Over time, as whites fled to different territory, South Dallas became the domain of primarily black residents.
Segregation is no longer exactly de jure in Dallas, thanks to the legal victories of the Civil Rights Movement. Still, as in many American cities, Dallas’s spatial inequalities persist to the present day. (To illustrate, the above map by the Kirwan Institute overlays 2010 Census-tract poverty rates in Dallas onto an old “redlining” map.) Pew recently ranked Dallas as the second-most segregated city in the country in terms of household income, a divide that overlaps extensively with Dallas’s now-infamous North/South racial split. Of the 300+ census tracts in the Dallas metro that are are majority low-income, more than 80 percent are predominantly non-white, and the majority are located in South Dallas. South Dallas neighborhoods in particular remain plagued by unequal access to quality housing, jobs, education, and grocery stores.
These conditions aren’t merely the products of the past, either. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released a report that accused the city of Dallas of knowingly misusing federal funds to perpetuate racial segregation in public housing—charges that the city, for the most part, did not dispute.
The Dallas Police Department has been recently lauded for its reforms around community policing, data transparency, and employment of non-violent de-escalation tactics. Those changes have been concurrent with a dramatic decline in excessive-force complaints against the department since 2009.
Those efforts were essential. In decades past, police brutality was as bad in Dallas as it was nearly anywhere, and communities of color bore the brunt of it. In 1973, violent protests broke out among Mexican-American and black residents after an officer shot and killed 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez, whom he accused of stealing $8 from a vending machine. The following decade, two other shootings garnered national attention around the DPD’s use of force: In 1986, a 70-year-old woman was fatally shot by an officer responding to her burglary call in South Dallas. In 1987, in the same part of town, officers killed an 81-year-old community crime watch volunteer, also while responding to a call. Both of these victims had been carrying firearms, and both were black. Both of those years, the Dallas Police Department ranked number one among major U.S. cities in the use of deadly force on a per capita basis, based on an assessment at the time by the Dallas Times Herald.
''It's clear that these officers put themselves in a position where they used violence instead of peaceful resolution,'' a Dallas City Council member, Diane Ragsdale, told the New York Times at the time. ''We are talking about institutionalized racism, the mode of thinking that when you rush into a poor black community, you shoot, you don't think.''
Those incidents and others before and after them sparked waves of activism and resistance in Dallas’s communities of color. More black and Latino citizens were elected into city offices and took jobs in law enforcement. Still, in many neighborhoods, suspicion and discomfort around police never really went away, according to Phillips. And police brutality hasn’t either, even with DPD’s reforms.
Historians and civil rights advocates say Dallas hasn’t done much civic reckoning with its dark history of racial violence, and that many of the old power structures are as entrenched as ever. “I would describe Dallas’s personality around race as a little schizophrenic,” Rinku Sen, the executive director of the social justice organization Race Forward, said in a 2013 interview. “There is clearly a ton of interest in talking about the racial divisions and dynamics around the city… And, on the other side, there is also resounding silence, and a real effort clearly to try to push those realities under the rug.”
But perhaps some hope can be found in Thursday’s aftermath. Police officers acted swiftly to protect protesters of color as soon as the sniper shots rang out. Dallas Police Chief David Brown has said that he does not plan to “militarize... policing standards” in reaction to the horror. In an emotional speech Friday afternoon, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings rather bravely broached the subject of race, calling for renewed efforts to heal longstanding tensions.
“We will not shy away from the very real fact that we, as a city, as a state, as a nation, are struggling with racial issues,” he said. “They continue to divide us. Yes, it’s that word, ‘race,’ and we’ve got to attack it head on.”
Thursday’s tragedy could even be a turning point, Zan Holmes, a longtime minister and civil rights leader in the Dallas community, tells CityLab. “Every crisis presents a new opportunity to build a brand-new future,” he says. “Do we go back to the way we were? Or do we allow this crisis to move us forward, together, to bring about justice and righteousness and peace?”