Dallas – The Turbulent Years

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First in a series of the turbulent history of Dallas

Southern Rock Island Plow Company circa 1910
Photo Credit: Dallas Morning News
Look familiar? Not much has changed in the old façade of the former Texas School Book Depository building on Elm and Houston street in Dallas. In 1894 the Rock Island Plow Company out of Illinois purchased this site and originally built a five-story building there. This plant was among other Rock Island Plow buildings that sold farm implement equipment. In 1901, the building caught fire (lightning by some accounts) and replaced with a more permanent seven story structure. In 1963 another fateful event would manifest itself upon this building that the city of Dallas could never erase in the minds of its citizenry. Near the end of the American Depression era, the building was sold to Carraway Byrd Corporation in 1937. However the corporation defaulted on the loan and it was purchased in a public auction by Dallasite, David Harold Byrd. (1)

D.H. Byrd began his career in the burgeoning oil boom in Texas, starting from the bottom and worked himself through Trinity and University of Texas studying geology. Like a lot of Texas wildcatters, he struck out on his own and finally shook his “Dry Hole Byrd” moniker when he struck two significant oil wells in the East Texas field. By 1931 he formed his own oil company, Byrd-Frost Incorporated with 492 producing wells. Somewhat of a celebrity (his cousin was explorer Admiral Richard Byrd, who named a range of Antarctica mountains, Harold Byrd mountains in his honor), business continued to prosper for Byrd. (1) Upon purchase of the building, Byrd leased it out to the Perfection-Aire Conditioning company, which went into bankruptcy sometime after. However Byrd finally found a client, the John Sexton Company out of Chicago. The Sexton company leased the building as a branch warehouse to distribute wholesale food/grocery items from 1941-1961. (2) The company utilized the rail spur behind the building to receive products manufactured in Sexton plants. Sexton did not renew their lease and moved out in 1961 to a modern single story facility. After the Sexton company moved out, the building was leased to the Texas School Book Depository company who moved most of their operation and books from an old warehouse on 1917 North Houston street. In 1963, the TSBD company employed 19 warehouse employees (including 4 at the Houston street warehouse) and 12 office support staff. The Houston street warehouse is where unknowingly TSBD warehouse worker Wesley Buell Frazier parked his car on November 22, 1963 and let out his soon to be infamous passenger, Lee H. Oswald. Today the building is operated as the Sixth Floor Museum housing various JFK assassination items and exhibits. Every year thousands of tourists flock to the museum to see what the old folks and long time civic leaders of Dallas would love to forget……… the cold-blooded death of JFK on Elm street.

David G. Burnet Elementary School Dallas
I was outside on the playground when I heard the news
November 22, 1963 was a very dark day for us Americans. Everyone of age remembers where they were and the shock that swept our nation. I remember that day as a 8-year-old kid in school in Dallas. It seemed the world just stopped and everybody just froze in place. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis was fresh in our minds, and certainly on the lips of people in Dallas that I knew. Nobody knew what was coming next….. Nobody!

A lingering fog of shame held over many Dallas residents for years. This was exacerbated by people from other places than Texas blaming us for killing Kennedy. The remarks were very demeaning in nature. To this day, I still get angry…..it never goes away.

Dallas, like many cities faced lots of challenges and hard times. Though my generation grew up living through the tragic days of November 1963, there were more difficult times that were played out in this city decades before.

It happened in the 1920’s when Dallas overcame one of it’s biggest menace to society.

KKK Rally Texas State Fair 1923
Photo Credit: Dallas Morning News
October is Texas State Fair time in Dallas. The event is huge where people from all over Texas and neighboring states pour in to see the exhibits and rides with their families. However on October 23, 1923, a different group of folks were pouring into Fair Park in Dallas. These people wore their Sunday Best, white robes and hoods. The “Invisible Empire” of hate made a resurgence revival near Atlanta, Georgia in 1915. Fresh inspiration came forth for the “Phoenix of Hate” in the 1915 D.W. Griffith film, “Birth of a Nation”. The movement started small but quickly gained popularity after WWI in the early 1920’s. Membership soon swelled and many marches and parades ensued. The KKK in this second re-birth manifestation in America took on a religious tone this time and ardently supported Prohibition. Most of the Klansmen were protestants and the Bible was always close by at cross burning ceremonies. (4)
KKK State Fair Invitation 1923
Photo Courtesy Of Texas State Historical Society
Meanwhile the following day on October 24, 1923, the newly formed Dallas Chapter KKK #66 (1920) inducted an astounding number of 5,631 new members at Fair Park. Each member took the oath of allegiance to the KKK, with Klan #66 with a 75 member drum and bugle band playing for added inspiration and patriotism. An estimated additional 800 women were also inducted into the Klan’s women’s auxiliary unit. Thousands of spectators cheered on. The event was very much like the old tent revival evangelist meetings that were prevalent during those days. Hatred of Jews, Blacks, Hispanics and Catholics was celebrated openly in this public event.(5) Many leading civic, business and law enforcement men of Dallas joined the ranks of the KKK, including the future mayor of Dallas in 1953, businessman Robert L. Thornton. It was estimated that Dallas alone had more than 13,000 members during this time. Darwin Payne, SMU journalist professor, estimated that out of the total population of 160,000 people in Dallas at that time, excluding non-protestants, minorities, women and children, an estimated 1 out of 3 protestant men in Dallas were Klan members or supporters. That number still boggles my mind.
The Dallas #66 chapter of the KKK had the largest membership in the nation in the 1920’s.
Dallas KKK #66 Photo credit: Dallas Morning News

Dallas KKK #66
Photo credit: Dallas Morning News

The Klan were beginning to be a force to reckon with in Dallas. They began to take the law into their own hands and being outright brazen about it. Many blacks were taken to the Trinity River bottoms, beaten, tarred and feathered and just plain ran out-of-town. Most of these instances went unreported and several law enforcement authorities turned a blind eye. In the most publicized KKK event, after the KKK #66 was formed, a black man was beaten and taken to the Trinity river bottoms. The letters” KKK” were etched on his forehead with acid. He was paraded back to the Adolphus hotel where he worked, half-naked. The poor victim was of accused of seeing a white woman. Dallas County sheriff Dan Harston and Dallas Police Department decided not to investigate, “said he had it coming”. The Dallas Klan quickly through it business members began to exert financial leverage of people not sympathetic to its cause. (6)
George Bannerman Dealey
Photo From Diaper Days Of Dallas, by Ted Dealey
One of the Dallas Times Herald newspaper editors was a Klansman, so was the head of the Dallas County Democratic party. Things were starting to get ugly in the city by the Trinity. Finally a courageous Dallas Morning News editorial writer had enough. Alonso Wasson wrote a scathing attack of the brutality of the Dallas Klan in an editorial named “Dallas Slandered”. George B. Dealey, owner of the Dallas Morning News woke up the next morning and read the editorial. He was supportive, but yet he admonished Wasson for not having a formal meeting of DMN staff before to discuss editorial changes of the paper. Nevertheless, Dealey and his Morning News staff pursued a vigorous anti-Klan stance documenting the Klan’s beatings and downright lawlessness in Dallas. Members of the Klan, including those on the Dallas City Council and civic leaders were at war with George Dealey and the Dallas Morning News. They exercised great financial pressure and propaganda to put the newspaper out of business. Klan business members withdrew advertisement from the paper. Newspaper circulation dropped dramatically around the county. Things got pretty bad for George Dealey. While Dallas Klan members vowed to put the Morning News out of the business, they almost succeeded. Dealey in desperation, sold his parent company The Galveston News, just to survive. Slowly the tide began to turn when Miriam “Ma” Ferguson (with the Dallas Morning News endorsement) won the Texas Democratic Governor Primary run-off against Judge Felix Robertson, an openly known Klan member. In the early 19th century Texas was a strong Democratic state. Texas voters elected Ma Ferguson governor in 1924. One of her laws she got through the Texas legislature was no person was allowed to wear a hood or mask in open demonstrations. There was no question where Ma Ferguson stood on the Klan in Texas. Membership began to falter from the 13,000+ in 1923 to less than 1,300 members. Finally the Klan closed it’s headquarters in Dallas in 1929. (5)

The courage of George Dealey, the oppressed black community and other Anti-Klan people in Dallas is a virtual unknown story to most people in Dallas, and one that needs to be revisited. Sadly that lesson of courage against hatred and bigotry would be lost with George Dealey’s son and heir to the Dallas Morning News in later years. That my friends is yet another story………..

References

  1. Texas State Historical Society
  2. Flashback Dallas, blog by Paula Bosse
  3. Murder Perch To Museum, by Jerry Organ
  4. One Hundred Percent American: The Rebirth And Decline of the Ku  Klux Klan in the 1920’s by Thomas Pegram
  5. Dallas Morning News, “At It’s Peak, Ku Klux Klan Gripped Dallas”, May 15, 2010 by Bryan Woolley
  6. Dallas: The Making Of A Modern City by Patricia E. Hill
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